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aterial Obesity, a Matter of Time

Isabel ValdĂŠs MarĂ­n


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time Isabel ValdĂŠs MarĂ­n


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Abstract

Mankind is suffering from ‘Material obesity’. We are consuming faster than we are able to get rid of things. Massive amounts of colourful nothing, clothes, books and other media end up on shelves and in closets without ever having been read or used. Storage is the temporary death of the object. Are we aware of our own time in relation to objects? Is there still a chance to bring the lifeless stuff back to life?


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

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Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Text Index

Planned Obsolescence. The system perspective

The death of the object I

Alternatives

Design for disassembly

Cradle to Cradle Design

Degrowth

The human dimension

Planning while designing

Design to age

A Matter of Time. The human perspective

The death of the Object II

Storage

Why we choose to store?ยง

The house as a supply station

The death of the object

Storage Unit

Conclusion

Store = Hide


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

The System Perspective: Planned Obsolescence The Death of the Object I

It has happened to all of us: a household appliance or electronic device suddenly stops working. The documentary Buy, discard, buy, by Cosima Dannoritzer, explored the case of an Epson inkjet printer that suddenly stopped. After trying to have it repair, Dannoritzer discovered that there wasn’t any actually wrong with the printer. The printer had an EEPROM chip installed in it, which is designed to block the printer once it has reached a certain number of prints. It sends an error signal to the user’s screen with the message: ‘A part of your printer has reached the end of its useful life. Please see your dealer.’ They located a small program, which resets the printer’s counter to zero. The free program is available on the Russian hacker Vitaliy Kiselev’s website for others to ‘fix’ their own printers. It has spread like wildfire through the forums of the computing community around the world. In fact, the printer wasn’t broken. It was the victim of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence may sound like a conspiracy theory – a decision made at a higher level to ensure that your products don’t last as long as they could. Unfortunately, it’s not a conspiracy theory. The term was introduced in Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet Ending The Depression Through Planned Obsolescence, a proposal to assure employment for the masses: ‘I would have the Government assign a lease of life to shoes and homes and machines, to all products of manufacture, mining and agriculture [..]. New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.’

Phoebus, an international cartel of light bulb manufacturers, first introduced planned obsolescence

into a line of products between 1924 and 1940. At the time, light bulbs were long-lasting objects. (A light bulb at a Livermore fire station in the US that was lit in 1901 is still burning today.) So Phoebus decided to reduce the standard life of a bulb to 1,000 hours in order to guarantee consumer demand.

Broadly speaking, there are two types of planned obsolescence: ‘Funcztional Obsolescence’ that forces the buyer to replace a product because it does not work anymore or because it does not interoperate with newer systems; and ‘Style Obsolescence’, which instills in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than necessary.

Supporters of planned obsolescence defend it as the driving force behind technological innovation, economic growth and material well-being. They claim it encourages extra investment in research and development, creates employment, and provides more affordable and better products for a greater number of people. They assert that a market structure of planned obsolescence and rapid innovation is preferred to longlasting products and slow innovation. Opponents of planned obsolescence argue that instead of accelerating the introduction of technological improvements, it actually postpones them. The company can just wait until the next product cycle to improve the product, knowing that the consumer will have to buy it again at that point.

The American automobile industry is one example of planned obsolescence in wide use. In the 1920s they introduced ‘the annual model’ marketing strategy; and by 1960s, the Detroit industry decided to make cars that would fall apart after three or four years. It was not until the 1970s when the Japanese manufacturers started to make durable cars, like the Honda Accord, that the buying public realized it had been duped. A significant


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

part of the failure of the American automobile industry today can be traced to the short sightedness of planned obsolescence strategies.

principle. In 2004 they remanufactured approximately 70,000 machines, extending a printer’s life up to seven times.

The most controversial effect of planned obsolescence is the waste it generates. The amount of electronic products discarded globally constitutes five percent of all the solid waste worldwide. Some 20 to 50 meter tonnes of e-waste is produced each year, most of which ends up in the developing world where laws to protect workers and the environment are inadequate or not enforced.

iFixit.com is an open source company that provides free repair manuals and whose manifesto advocates for the right to self-repair. They supply a ‘liberation kit’ that includes a special driver to remove Apple’s proprietary Pentalobular screws, and standard ones to replace them.

Planned obsolescence only occurs when you have some other sort of market failure, such as monopolistic or oligopolistic behavior.

E-waste is now the fastest growing component of the solid waste stream as people upgrade their mobile phones, computers, televisions, audio equipment and printers more frequently than ever before.

Alternatives

A growing number of thinkers and consumers are no longer willing to accept planned obsolescence principles. They are rebelling and exploring alternative ways of making their products age again. Some of the strategies they are employing to combat planned obsolescence are as follows:

Design for disassembly

The EU’s new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Regulations (WEEE) are forcing electronics firms to eliminate toxic substances and to take back and recycle their products.

Consequently producers will need to incorporate ‘Design for Disassembly (DfD)’ strategies. A process of designing products that can easily, cost-effectively and rapidly be taken apart at the end of the product’s life so that components can be repaired, refurbished or recycled. Xerox photocopiers are designed according to this

Apple is making it harder for users to repair or upgrade their own hardware. New iPhones, MacBook Pro and Air models come with a new kind of nonstandard screw, securing the outside and battery cases of these products. The reason: Apple wants you to buy upgrades and replacements.

Cradle to cradle design

While considering the environmental consequences of panned obsolescence, it is interesting to note that it was the same Bernard London, in his pamphlet of 1932, who suggested that planned obsolescence and green strategies should not contradict: ‘We must work on the principle of nature, which creates and destroys, and carries the process of elimination and replacement through the ages’.

In the 1990s the German chemist Michael Braungart and his colleagues at the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) in Hamburg, started researching a system of ‘lifecycle development’. Once products have reached the end of their useful life, they become either ‘biological nutrients’, materials that can re-enter the environment, or ‘technical nutrients’, materials that remain within closed-loop industrial cycles. With this system, products and their components can evolve, grow and age, hence becoming timeless. In 2002 Braungart and US architect William McDonough presented their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, a manifesto that calls for a switch from a cradle-to-grave pattern to a


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

cradle-to-cradle pattern and from eco-friendly to ecoeffectiveness.

One of their more recent projects is the Herman Miller Mirra Chair, the first cradle-to-cradle furniture example that has come on the marketplace. This durable chair is designed to meet the strict requirements for safe material chemistry (zero carbon footprint, zero PVC, zero VOCs) disassembly (minimal number of parts and easily disassemble in fifteen minutes), and recyclability (the chair is 96 percent recyclable and recycled content is 33 percent).

Degrowth

Regardless of the production processes, it is important to cast doubt upon the validity of the great excessive regard for worldly and materialistic concerns.

Degrowth movements are calling the very concept of economic growth into question. They ask for reflection on the impossibility to have infinite growth in a world of finite resources. A growing number of thinkers and activists call for the downscaling of production and consumption. By designing products to age, wellbeing is maximized through non-consumptive means, devoting more time to culture and community.

The human dimension

In addition to the material and waste concerns resulting from planned obsolescence, there is a human dimension that we must pay attention to. An alarming statistic indicates that just one per cent of the products that are purchased in the US remain in use after six months. The implications of waste are obvious here; but also there are the implications for a lack of sustained use and relationships with products by consumers.

Some studies have demonstrated that the objects we would never get rid of are the ones that we associate with experiences and memories. This should force us to ask if there is actually greater value in aging than truncated life spans for products.

‘We’re filling up the world with technology and devices, but we’ve lost sight of an important question: What is this stuff for? What value does it add to our lives?’ says John Thackara, designer and writer of the book In the Bubble: Designing for a Complex World. Thackara argues that the human dimension, not unchecked growth and consumption, should be at the heart of the design process: ‘My problem with this [..] version of ‘clean growth’ is that it still limits our understanding of the economy to the production of paid goods and services’.

Giles Slade, in his book Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, analyzes how relationships around him were getting shorter and less committed, and how the idea of community started changing in favor of individualism and consumerism.

Some sociologists even see a connection with the success of Swedish brands H&M and IKEA, and the high divorce rate in Sweden. Sweden’s commitment to modernity, and the ability to acquire cheap and ‘disposable’ objects, leads to a sort of ‘disposable mentality’ in which the individual has the right to remove whatever does not fit into their life anymore.

Design to age

The ‘disposable mentality’ seems to have the potential to extend and deepen the human-object and object-human relations. Should we focus on prolonging and enriching these relations? Should we not allow them to age? Most products now appear to have only been conceived for the point of sale with no apparent thought for how they will be affected by use. They don’t stand up well to wear and tear, and they don’t easily allow for user modification.

Design to age avoids disposable and wasteful patterns; it celebrates cracks, crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It recognizes that time will pass and materials will wear.


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Agile and Wiki software developers used this concept to describe their methodologies based on iterative and incremental construction of their imperfect, impermanent and incomplete product. More recently the same idea has been renamed ‘beausage’ by Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycles. Beausage is the combination of the words beauty and usage, and describes the things that have become more endearing and beautiful through the wear and tear of fulfilling their purpose.

Planning while designing

Whether we look from the object or from the human perspective, the alternatives described above all aim to improve the life cycle system. Time will pass, and concepts and processes will wear. The value is in the experience of constantly developing and growing as human being over time.


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

The Human Perspective: A Matter of Time, Material Obesity The Death of the Object II Storage

Planned obsolescence was introduced at the beginning of the century, when Henry Ford and other leaders of industry, understood that mass production presupposed mass consumption. Since then, Western and especially US economic systems, have turned consumption into the principle aspiration, source of identity, and leisure activity for most of the population.

The past few decades have produced an incredible and oftentimes unmanageable amount of material goods, at levels never seen before. Consumption society is now addicted to acquiring and collecting things, expending as much money and time as can be afforded. Giftware and massive amounts of colorful nothing, clothes, books and other media end up on shelves and closets without ever having been read or used. However, most of the times, we stop using something, not because it does not work (functional obsolescence) or because we do not like it anymore (style obsolescence), but because this accumulation of stuff takes over our private space. It is not until these articles collapse our homes that we stop to make a selection of what we actually have time to use and get rid of the rest. But, do we really get rid of it?; No, in most of the cases we end up storing it.

Tons and tons of useful objects are kept in hibernation before ever being thrown away. According to the Dutch organization Eternally Yours Foundation the total amount of unused things in attics, cellars and sheds in 2004 add up to about nine billion Euros worth of goods in the Netherlands alone.

Why we choose to store?

The ‘depression mentality’ we inherited from our parents and grandparents meant that throwing anything

away was being wasteful. This has created a paradox in a society where things are replaced at such an accelerated rate.

The rate at which we replace products makes us aware of their monetary value and leaves us with the inability to see our last acquisition as suddenly worthless, even though we have just been out shopping for a new one as though it was obsolete. Memories and sentimentality are also part of the problem. People inherit houses full of items from relatives and they don’t know what to do with it all. They feel guilty about getting rid of it, so they keep most of it and try to incorporate it into their homes or pay a monthly fee for a storage unit.

Storage units

According to the American Self Storage Association (SSA), one out of every 10 households in the country rents a storage unit. The US now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space.

The first modern self-storage facilities opened in the 1960s helping people muddle through what it terms ‘life events’. For the most part, storage units were meant to temporarily absorb the possessions of those in transition: moving, marrying, divorcing or dealing with a death in the family. The late 20th century turned out to be a golden age of life events in America, with peaking divorce rates and a rush of second and third home buying. At the same time, the first baby boomers were left to face the caches of heirlooms and clutter in their parent’s basements. Between 1970 and 2008, real disposable personal income per capita doubled, and by 2008 people were spending nearly all of it each year. Meanwhile, the price of much of what they were buying plunged. By the 1990s American families had on average twice as


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

many possessions as they did 25 years earlier. By 2005, according to the Boston College sociologist Juliet B. Schor, the average consumer purchased one new piece of clothing every five and a half days. Across America, from 2000 to 2005, upward of 3,000 self-storage facilities opened each year. Somehow, Americans managed to fill that brand-new empty space. It raises a simple question: where was all that stuff before?

The house as a supply station

In earlier times the number of utensils a normal family had at their disposal was a few tenfold at most. Nowadays they run into thousands. Already in the 1960s some surveys found than the average American family was accumulating around 10,000 articles in their houses. Attacking these difficulties, architects George Nelson and Henry Wright concluded that most family paraphernalia could best be kept in a space 12 inches deep. With this idea in mind they designed a storage wall that was supposed to substitute the standard wall that otherwise would waste hollow space. By now, we have become professionals of storing things, making room for things and hiding things away in the home. We have introduced closets as components of the building, we have stored under the stairs, in niches with doors and we have incorporated wardrobes to all types of furniture. Whether we use the house as the ‘centre’ that allows us to work, relax and receive guests; or we just use it as a ‘hostel’ where we come only to eat and sleep; the house works as a storage unit where we load up with the requirements for our next activity.

The house of today has become a supply station, a repository for an overgrowing heap of artefacts for killing time. The house has in other words become one big cellar; a space for supplies of hectic hobbies, cars, bicycles, surf-planks, camping gear, barbecues, musical

instruments, tools, toys etc. The dividing line between the house and the storage space has thus become hazy.

Store = Hide

You can acquire or discard but the total volume of space in a house is fixed and constant. Storage is about rethinking the space you have and making it work for you again. To store is to organize and hide all your stuff to prevent mental burnout.

The death of the object

Storage is about restriction in space but also in time and money. Time and money to buy. Time and space to actually use what we have. To have is to store and again it takes time, space and money. And then we will buy again and we will need to rearrange our storage spaces so the new stuff can also fit. Repack and re-erect a tidier column of new boxes takes time once more. We start storing in our shelves and closets. Then in our attic, basement, shelter, garage and if we have it, in our second residence. Finally, if we can afford it, we will rent a storage unit. And that will be the end. While stuff is stored it is not available. The temporary death of the object.

We cannot discard everything we have stored together, as a whole. We will just come back to it when we can make sure we will have the time to separate what we think is important to keep from what is actually junk.

Hence, it is about laziness as well. Once objects are stored, nobody likes to spend all day moving his or her stuff to find something. As long as people can afford it, and feel psychologically that they can afford it, they will leave their stuff stored forever. It is also a matter of money, the money you spend because selling second hand articles is not a business. Most of the times, the things that are stored are worth less than what is paid to store them. Storage is always a bad investment. Yearbooks, winter clothes, extra mattresses, old


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

toys, Cd’s, vacuum cleaners, Christmas decorations, glassware, skies, computer screens, tools, camping gear, musical instruments, microwaves, floor lamps, televisions, wooden child’s beds, souvenirs, posters, old cutlery, wool blankets, chairs, old news papers, school trophies, barbecues…


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Conclusion Making a product to last long is different from making a long-lasting product. It is not just about designing a product to age but designing it to be used. It is about being aware of our own time in relation to objects. It is about having only the stuff we have time to use.

The house has become a camouflage storage unit. The dividing line between the house and the storage space has thus become hazy. Storing is hiding; we cannot deal with seeing it all. The weight of the mass becomes more psychological than the weight of the actual object. Mankind is suffering from ‘material obesity’. We are battling with an over-accumulation of goods and we need the equivalent of liposuction to become healthy once again. We need to put our houses and storage spaces on a diet. Every time we don’t make a decision about a piece of paper, or a toy, or whether to keep or toss something, we are creating clutter in our homes. It is time to learn to ex-collect things.

We transform objects into junk just by storing them. We do so just in case we need them later and to feel ok until we are dead. While stuff is stored it is not available. The temporary death of the object. It is junk in case.

The time, the space and the money we use to consume, accumulate and store, means to sacrifice time for culture and community. Material obesity is stealing our time. Is there still a chance to bring back to life the lifeless objects? Or, on the contrary; will we end up literally storing ourselves? We will see. It is a Matter of Time.


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Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Exhibitions & Publications 2012 ‘Material Obesity’ presented at ‘Open Week’ Exhibition & Accreditation Exhibition Design Academy Eindhoven. April 2012. Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

2011 ‘Material Obesity’ presented at ‘Our Way’, Design Academy Eindhoven Graduation Show.Dutch Design Week. October 2011. Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

2011 ‘Material Obesity’ exhibited at Studio Aandacht ‘Pop Up Gallery’. Inside Design Amsterdam Route. September 2011. Ijburg, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

2011 ‘A Matter of Time’ presented at ‘Masters in Design Symposium 2011’. Masters Graduation Exhibition. Design Academy Eindhoven. June 2011. Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

2011 ‘Material Obesity’. Installation at De Schellens Fabriek curated by Ilse Crawford. June 2011. Eindhoven, The Netherlands.

2011 ‘Material Obesity’. Installation at Matadero de Madrid. April 2011. Madrid, Spain.


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

2011. Article on Planned Obsolescence. Valdés Marín, I. (2011) Re-Planning the Planned Obsolescence, in: Volume #27 (Aging: Fight or Accept + Trust Design #1), pp.22-26. Presented at Milan Breakfasts (event organized by Premsela and Design Academy Eindhoven) on April 14th, at Salone Internazionale del Mobile 2011, Milan (Italy).

2011 Feature on ‘Material Obesity, a Matter of Time’. Valdés Marín, I. (2011) A Matter of Time, in: Elle Decor 219, pp.40.

2011. Feature on ‘Material Obesity, a Matter of Time’. Valdés Marín, I. (2011) A Matter of Time, in: Our Way pp.232-233, Design Academy Eindhoven. Presented at Design Academy Eindhoven Graduation Show during the Dutch Design Week on October 2011.


Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

2012. Feature on ‘Material Obesity, a Matter of Time’. Valdés Marín, I. (2012) A Matter of Time, in: Textiel Plus 219, pp.40.

2012 Feature on ‘Material Obesity, a Matter of Time’. Valdés Marín, I. (2012) A Matter of Time, in: Design Today, January 2012, Special Feature ‘Dutch Design Week’.

2012 Feature on ‘Material Obesity, a Matter of Time’. Valdés Marín, I. (2012) A Matter of Time, in: CAAOH. Special Feature ‘Dutch Design Week’.


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Material Obesity, a Matter of Time

Isabel Valdés Marín Isabel Valdés Marín (b.1978) is a Spanish design researcher and concept developer. Her approach consists in the use of design as a tool for questioning and visualising contemporary human behaviour to identify and understand opportunities and risks. Valdés builds on the critical analysis of interdisciplinary theories with a particular focus on human behaviour and material culture. Her interest lies in the relation between identity and artefact. Particularly, understanding the artefact not just as an external object that allows us to solve problems of all kinds, but also as an extension of the subjective self, as a mirror where to look at ourselves. She believes that understanding life from the domestic context, the one of the non-experts, the one of the consumers and users of artefacts and services, will help to influence and reinvent our future in advance.


Isabel Valdés Marín

DESIGN RESEARCH &

CONCEPT DEVELOPMENT

Copenhagen, Denmark/ Madrid, Spain ivaldesmarin@gmail.com

www.isabelvaldesmarin.com


Isabel Valdés Marin. Material Obesity, a Matter of Time