Technology for the common good or for planned obsolescence?
By Victor Liste
Translation: Gabriela LLull y Paula Viviani.
Edition: Florencia Carotti.
Throughout history, great technological innovations brought forward new possibilities of social organization; yet,, in modern society, are these leaps aimed at reaching generalized abundance or at deepening inequality?
Ever since I was a child, I felt attracted by automatization, by the possibility of designing a machine that would release people from performing monotonous tasks. Thus, I specialized in robotics, and I imagined myself participating in a process that would contribute to the common good, to generating abundance, with short working hours and a lesser use of energy and resources.
An experience that marked me was when I automatized the last remaining manual process in the production of disposable soda siphons. After several attempts, I had “succeeded”. But, was the increased productivity enough to produce abundance for humanity? No, on the very contrary, dozens of employees would be replaced by the new machines. Also, the disposable soda siphons would end up polluting surface water. It was clear that what I had automatized was a factory of waste. Technology was being used to sell convenience at the expense of an environmental disaster, and it would not reduce working hours: it would generate redundancies.
I was failing to turn my work into a contribution to the common good. What had gone wrong?
I had to stand up and observe the processes that are currently in place in modern society.
Throughout history, working hours were gradually reduced as productivity increased. They went from 16 to 12 hours in the XIX century. Sixty years ago, the working hours per day were already eight and, although workers’ productivity has quadrupled since then, working hours have only been reduced marginally. So, what is the use of all this progress in productivity? It has been translated into more sales, which —in part— are achieved by a continued reduction of the useful life of goods.
The playing field today favors low durability products. Appliances that fail under warranty are thrown away with no previous attempt at repairing them and replaced by brand new ones. Manufacturers are not sanctioned for the pollution thus created, which explains the increased frequency of this tendency. Positions in the sales sector are flourishing because customers need to be “harassed” to purchase items they don´t actually need.
This scenario has led to multiple undertakings by different countries, including the US, Sweden and France, aimed at the creation of laws forcing manufacturers to extend warranty periods and to provide information about the expected lifespan of each product and how to repair it (right to repair act).
However, these efforts can have an impact on employment. If the usable life of a refrigerator is doubled, sales are halved. Only half the plants and half the employees would thus be needed, and GNP would drop. Our world struggles with this false dichotomy, “nurture either the environment or the economy”, as the inefficient use of resources to produce articles with short lifespans is considered positive for the economy. A great misunderstanding.
Once I started grasping these mechanisms, working in the manufacturing sector no longer felt fulfilling. So I sold my share of the automation company and I now devote myself to teaching and research. I am also a member of Engineering Without Borders Argentina, where we work towards the common good. I also raise awareness about the contradictions of our time.
In the age with the largest output per capita in all of our history, we face a seemingly paradoxical phenomenon of increased inequality instead of the overall improvement in living standards. We are still being led by a bunch of obsolete rules. There is an evident drive to reduce work hours, but the failure of employment alone to result in redistribution of wealth warrants further debate about new redistribution strategies. Profound changes are needed, but they must first overthrow deeply rooted dogmas. However, the payoff in case of success will be well worth the effort.