In class, we dedicate a lot of time to discussing the benefits of innovation. I’d like to invite you to take a moment to think about instances when innovation might disadvantage us… how about instances when innovation might contribute to unnecessary waste, or land and water pollution? What about instances when innovation might stifle our creativity? What have you come up with? I’ve given it quite a bit of thought and I’d like to share two instances with you.
Many years ago (when Harvard University Press maintained a bookstore in the Holyoke Center), I stumbled upon Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence In America, which documents the history and current pervasiveness of planned obsolescence, the notion that items are deliberately produced with a finite useful life. Sometimes poor quality materials are used precisely to time the item’s expiration. Have you ever wondered why your first digital camera had less features than your current one, but still works—and may in fact, yield better picture quality (albeit fewer megapixels—who needs 15+ megapixels anyway? Though that isn’t stopping Panasonic from its 20 megapixel plans…)? I’ve noticed this about my current Canon Elph vs my original one. For the longest time, I subscribed to my own well-crafted cynical theory: of course the first few models are reliable, durable and of remarkably high quality, how else will Canon (or any other manufacturer) establish its brand reputation as industry leading and brainwash you into an inexplicable unwavering and unwarranted eternal brand loyalty: “Ah this one is just a fluke, Canons are top quality, they’ve always been!” you say to yourself as you go shopping for a Canon replacement. Yes, that is the power of marketing credibility!
On the one hand, the economic benefits clearly accrue to both the technical and stylistic innovators who are encouraged to consistently introduce new versions and models, as well as to the big manufacturers who can manipulate consumers to continuously buy more. After all, durability “does not produce prosperity, but buying things does.” On the other hand, the social and environmental externalities are staggeringly significant: millions upon millions of usable yet stylistically obsolescent electronic objects are cast away to landfills, polluting both land and water (although to be fair, some must get recycled to the emerging markets, so you if you want to make the green argument, if it makes you feel better, point taken). So, clearly resources are wasted, and beyond that, time and energy is diverted from improving the quality of objects to simply modifying them for the sake of introducing new models (Volkswagen apparently mocked the concept in 1959 with its advertising campaign: “We do not believe in planned obsolescence. We don’t change a car for the sake of change.”).
Innovation of Toys
This is a topic that I’m personally quite passionate about. The innovation of toys—some toys—has come at a steep cost to creativity. Remember when you played with Lego bricks as a child? You had the freedom to construct anything you wanted with those rectangular bricks. They came in a huge box, without instructions, themes or prepackaged sets. You literally had to harness your own creativity to build something—anything! Today, more themed boxes are sold than classic brick sets. Children’s creative powers are constrained; they don’t need to figure out how best to utilize their pieces to construct Hogswart or the Batmobile. There are sets with specified pieces, and instructions to guide them. Luckily Lego still offers the classic brick sets and its innovations aren’t all bad; tiny Lego people add quite a bit to the fun! But certainly, the negatives of innovation must be noted.
If I ever opened my own toy store, I’d have a place at the center of the store with just cardboard boxes, scissors, markers, glue and construction paper. I’d give children 20 minutes and ask them to do something with the box, make something, transform it into something. I’d love to see what they would come up with. I love the versatility of the cardboard box – it could be anything: a wagon, a part of one’s fort, a dollhouse. Today, children don’t need to imagine those things. With innovations in technology reducing the cost of production, their parents can walk into Toys R Us and for less than $20, get them a beautiful shiny wagon, or a multi-roomed themed dollhouse. I’m not against those specific toys. To me, it’s just sad that some innovations have actually stolen opportunities from kids to imagine, discover and create.
I’ll leave you with Calvin and Hobbes. If you recall, Calvin had quite a bit of fun with cardboard boxes. To him, they served as flying time machines and duplicators, transmogrifiers and secret meeting places.