Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Disposable by Design

Growing up I was not a member of the "disposable" generation. We fixed everything. I remember the first time I saw a disposable razor, which looking back was the beginning of the end. And worse, it was a gift from my Dad.

My father, a well traveled business man, developed a habit of bringing me something from each new and exotic location his work took him, like...Toledo. Actually, he traveled the world selling his employer’s wares consisting of heavy equipment, and parts to maintain that equipment, some of which had been in service for decades. Unless the trip was to an actual exotic location, the item was likely something he got at the airport or on the flight. I have a very nice collection of airline trinkets from back when jet travel was a marvel, and those who could afford it were treated as royalty, or at least minimally important people.

Tell someone today that Delta Airlines provided it’s customers with actual metal dining utensils AND let them keep the same after the flight and they may accuse you of telling tall tales. Toiletry kits, sleeping masks, pillows and the ever present playing cards were all items brought to me when my father would return from a trip in the 60's and early 70's. Towards the mid 70's such items tapered off a bit, and then around 1978 it happened. He returned with a bag of nuts and a little bag containing a comb, small toothbrush and a completely disposable razor made of plastic.

I’m not saying they did not exist before then, but that is when I became aware that not all razors were made of sturdy metal with blades carefully inserted by hand. My grandfather used an electric razor every time I saw him shave, but had a wonderful straight-razor in his bathroom. With an ivory handle and a gleaming blade my young mind wondered how anyone could use such an item without requiring medical intervention.

Over time I became aware, as did we all, that it could be more cost effective for a manufacturer to build a disposable "cheap item" than one of higher quality. Every Sociology and Economics major has debated the concept of "planned obsolescence" as the downfall of manufacturing and, to some, the country’s slide into social degradation. It was almost as if manufacturers discovered a way to get cars, televisions and household appliances to break down exactly 30 days after the warranty expired. Should the item survive more than a year past the warranty expiration date, the part needed to effectuate repairs was no longer made.

These days computers are almost a disposable item, as are televisions and whatever passes for a video recording device. But the disposable nature of society really came home to me a few weeks ago when I attended a university event and chatted up the ever present and indispensable "event photographer." She was shooting her favorite rig, a professional grade major manufacturer digital body and lens. I openly ogled the several thousand dollar camera as she described its functional attributes and advantages over "old film cameras.".

As a photographer myself, I love the work of photography greats like Ansel Adams and secretly covet the somewhat arcane but elegant equipment used to take some of the most widely viewed images in modern times. Because of that, I secretly hoped digital imageing was a fad, much like Beta-Max and multi-colored tube socks with toes. Unfortunately for me, it is not. My precious film cameras, upon which I spent considerable sums of my then available discretionary income, are now relics of progress. I can literally replace any of them on E-Bay for less than $50.00. Before too long the manufacturers will no doubt refuse to even service them, assuming I can find the proper film and processing for same.

And then my new found camera friend let me in on a little secret. Her camera, designed for professional photographers, and costing several thousands of dollars, was in fact...disposable. When the electronics in it go wonky, and they will go wonky she assured me with a certain resigned calm, the camera is junk. The manufacturer will not repair the "mother board" because something else equally important will simply be going bad in the very near future. Instead, they politely thank the stunned owner for using their product and direct them to their newest catalog of cameras. Not even a little voucher for a discount. No need she said, there is usually a waiting period for the top of the line model. Electronics being what they are, there is always a new algorithm or diode or something that makes the technology better and in the process makes the old version obsolete, the new word for "disposable."

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