The term “planned obsolescence” was supposedly coined by Milwaukee-based industrial designer Brooks Stevens in 1954 for a presentation in Minneapolis. However, a search on Google’s Ngram tool, which tracks the prevalence of phrases in books over time, traces the first appearance of the expression to 1929. Stevens couched its use in different terms than it has come to be understood today: “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” He thought of planned obsolescence not as a set of design flaws time-delayed into the infrastructure of a product, but more of a marketing ploy meant to make the old versions look out-of-date. Car companies, with their yearly model changeovers, are masters at this; phone companies have aped their success at a cheaper price point.
In the era of software, executing planned obsolescence has become easier than ever. An operating system update pushed out to devices with little or no choice from users can savage functionality. The practice of “instilling desire in the buyer a little sooner than necessary” is now a centralised, push-button operation. These software manipulations are inextricably linked into a whole ecosystem of difficult-to-repair hardware built with proprietary fasteners, edge-to-edge screens, and finicky, expensive batteries. Recently, I wrote a post on this sad back-and-forth, as illustrated through designer Thomas Thwaites’ attempt to build a toaster from scratch.
Both planned obsolescence and un-repairability are born from and fuelled by the idea of patents. Up until 1331 (minus a few IP-curious Greeks), the concept of a granting a temporary monopoly on an invention did not exist. Research and development were subsidised by patrons or guilds, and suppressed by the same mechanisms. Inevitably, the system sank into corruption before the Industrial Revolution, allowing moneyed men to stay that way and innovators to toil on in poverty. As history wore on, a few men were able to claw out of obscurity on the strength of a patent or two (McCormick, Whitney, Graham-Bell, Edison, Tesla) but the vast majority of inventors never profited from their projects. Patents became just another weapon in wars of attrition between corporations, used to argue whose rectangle is more rectangular and who rectangled it first.
The rectangle in question, via Google Patent search:
Open source software, which broke into the public conversation in 1998, was conceived as a way to circumvent these issues by releasing source code for people to tinker with on their own. Netscape was the first company to do this profitably; many have followed, including some of the heavies like Google’s Android. Generally, open source projects adhere to four basic principles: openness, transparency, iteration, and community. Source code should be open; operations, edits, and defects should be transparent; drafts should be released early and iterated frequently; and it should all operate on a community basis that coalesces around project challenges. On top of these four principles, the Open Source Initiative has (critically) built up a legal regime around open software by establishing standards and licenses. Now, these principles are coming to hardware.
Phonebloks started 2 years ago as a viral video about a reconfigurable phone that one could upgrade easily by switching out brick-like modules. RepRap has taken these ideas further, developing an open-source 3D printer that one can use to print parts for more 3D printers, ad infinitum. Open Source Ecology, based on a farm in Missouri, is developing a toolkit of 50 machines (many of which can make other machines) with crowd-sourced design, prototyping, and assembly instructions. Hacking Households, a project that came out of the 24th Slovenian Design Biennial last summer, aims to combine 3D printing and simple wooden parts to make easy-to-comprehend household objects. OpenDesk, a company out of London, releases CAD files of furniture so you can cut your own on a CNC. They are also working on the WikiHouse, a similarly crowd-sourced project to produce low-cost, snap-together structures from CNC-routed plywood.
Hacking households mixer, via Jesse Howard.
It hasn’t taken long for the corporations to follow suit. The idea of a modular phone was quickly co-opted by Google, whose Project Ara, while “not an official Google product,” aims to do the same thing as Phonebloks. Local Motors, a venture-backed startup that aims to put member-based garages in 100 cities in the next decade, is crowd-sourcing the design of kit cars. They’ve joined forces with GE to develop a similar regime for household appliances, encouraging the crowd to hack washing machines and refrigerators and (sort of) share in the profits of the resulting products. In a weird way, though they didn’t ask for it, IKEA has also become an open-source furniture company. After threatening to shut down ikeahackers.net, they invited the founder to Sweden and talked about how legible instructions, simple hand tools, and sustainable materials could democratise design.
But open source — at least how most people are using the phrase — doesn’t translate so easily to objects. Software is an infinitely malleable thing, forever editable, updatable, and debatable. Objects are certainly iterative, but each version exists as a distinct built thing. It may be modified, but not edited. That may seem like semantics, but it is an important distinction. When software (or a Word document, for that matter) is edited, it is changing the fabric of the thing. When an “open source” chair, already extant, is modified for additional comfort, the underlying structure is the same set of atoms, irreversibly arranged. Once cannot update a chair by plugging in a USB cable. Further, open source objects cannot all conform to uniform standards — cars need to exist in one regulatory regime, buildings another, and medical devices still another. Software, as a single class of thing in the universe, can live under a single set of standards.
My shot an an open-source object.
Open Source Objects (OSO) need a standard set. In order to somehow encompass the entire universe of things, I would imagine it would remain more of a guide than a detailed document. Ronen Kadushin, a designer and design philosopher, approached the idea in a manifesto five years ago. His preconditions were straightforward: that design information should be published openly online, and manufacture should only need a CNC without special tooling. While strong, and necessarily simple, I don’t think these guidelines go far enough. So, building on the work of Mr. Kadushin, I would humbly propose a further framework:
Open: object’s technical drawings, assembly instructions, and process documentation available free online.
Editable: object design should be downloadable in a free, open, and editable file and further iteration encouraged.
Accessible: object design should be built with fasteners, methods, and materials that are as broadly accessible to the world population as possible.
Repairable: objects should be built with fasteners, methods, and materials that are easily removed, replaced, repaired, and/or substituted for.
Disposable: objects should be able to be recycled, reused, repurposed, or otherwise sustainably disposed of.
Within those five guidelines, there is a lot to figure out. Let me, and the world, know what you think. Tweet your ideas with the hashtag #OSOdesign, and let’s start a movement.