.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Mutualist Blog: Free Market Anti-Capitalism

To dissolve, submerge, and cause to disappear the political or governmental system in the economic system by reducing, simplifying, decentralizing and suppressing, one after another, all the wheels of this great machine, which is called the Government or the State. --Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution

My Photo
Location: Northwest Arkansas, United States

Friday, July 20, 2007

Exchange with Preston Glidden on Planned Obsolescence

I had an interesting exchange of emails with Preston Glidden recently. In response to this comment from me...

...with the full development of a market based on decentralized production and cooperative ownership, such as Emilia-Romagna only hints at, it's quite plausible to imagine most or even all of the functions of a factory being farmed out to small home or neighborhoods shops. After Peak Oil hits, one of the first steps toward such an economy might be the machining of replacement parts for appliances in home "hobby" shops. In time, the custom machining of parts for appliances of entirely new design, distributed among networks of such small shops, might become the basis for a new economy.

He wrote:
I suspect that new designs would be needed before this kind of distributed manufacturing really took off, since so many things are designed to be built by specialized automated machines, and are not designed to be serviced in the field.

What I expect are "throwback designs", at least at first. Consider televisions. In the early days of televisions, the sets were made for easy field servicing. Most of the time, all you had to do was look for a dark vacuum tube, and replace it. Drug stores had tube testers that you could use to test the tube yourself. A nearby cabinet had replacements. I don't expect the return to a vacuum tube, but that kind of modular design could be re-created for easy servicing. It would have the added benefit of being more environmentally friendly, because we could stop throwing away the whole gadget when one component goes bad.

The TV could be built for upgrades, as well. The currently scheduled transition of standard to digital TV is probably too much for a simple upgrade, but if some super-cool p2p digital broadcast idea came out , it could be integrated into a modular FM radio with a simple plug in card.

Also, if you've ever seen the inside of a modern television, or most any electronic gadget, you'd see that the parts are machine soldered onto the surface of the circuit board. Such parts are very difficult to solder by hand, but the older design of through-hole soldering was made for hand-soldering. So I'd expect a throwback there. Most kit ham radios that are still sold today use through-hole tech.

Of course, as I commented to Preston, this tied in pretty closely with my earlier discussion with Eric Husman of Grim Reader blog on planned obsolescence:
The combination of patents on replacement parts and the deliberate abandonment of modular design by oligopoly manufacturers is probably in part a deliberate strategy of making repair artificially expensive compared to replacement. When the plumber says a washing machine or water heater would cost more to fix than it would be worth, I imagine he's telling the truth. But it's that way for a reason. The replacement part itself is probably patented, and marked up several hundred %. And the overall design is probably aimed at making the simple replacement of a single part as difficult as possible.

In regard to the specific example of TV and radio, my immediate reaction was that anyone independently producing such a digital upgrade module would probably run afoul of DRM or broadcast flag legislation, or some such cartelizing device. Such legislation has served pretty effectively to bar market entry and limit competition in DVD product features to the rate at which a handful of manufacturers want to spoon them out. Preston responded:
I'm not sure of the legal requirements. But there are no technical limitations. The input stage of an audio amp is basically the same everywhere. It does not matter what feeds it, whether AM/FM receiver, satellite, or p2p. All it would need is a common control mechanism, probably software programmable. Digital control buses are easy to design. You might not even need a new module, just a software upgrade. In the ham radio field, check out software defined radio for ideas.


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi, Kevin. It'll be interesting to see if any ham radio geeks or electronics design engineers stop by and comment on our little exchange. I'd like to get their feedback. I thought it might be of help to some of the laymen to post some of the links that I gave in the exchange for reference:

Through-Hole Technology at Wikipedia
Surface-Mount Technology at Wikipedia
Software Defined Radio at Comsec.com and Wikipedia.

Some of these links are a little technical, but I am more than happy to help translate for anyone who needs it.

July 20, 2007 7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I read 'I suspect that new designs would be needed before this kind of distributed manufacturing really took off, since so many things are designed to be built by specialized automated machines, and are not designed to be serviced in the field' I was just about to come in with what I saw as being needed rather than new stuff, when I immediately hit: 'What I expect are "throwback designs"...'

That's the point. Backtracking to where techniques diverged would give us stuff that "works" but isn't economically viable in modern terms. Developing improved small scale methods starting off from there would make more sense than trying to get there by improving factory-oriented techniques - there would be less unlearning and such like.

In this area, I can make a few observations. Let's take cars as an example. You sometimes hear criticisms of how "inefficient" and wasteful East German cars like the Trabant were. Well, this is only true if you assess them in terms of our own economics. Even for Warsaw Pact countries they used a lot of fuel, but that was cheap because of economic distortions. They polluted, but communism didn't care. Likewise they used too much labour, also cheap (oddly enough, it is our system that is the distorting one here). But what they delivered was durability and reliability, which we don't care about so much because we have the infrastructure for maintenance.

However, these were the reasons why the Trojan Car was competitive in the 1920s and '30s. So, we have to find out how to pick up where those things left off.

Even so, there have been improvements worth keeping. In my teens, in the '70s, my father told me that compared with his day in the '30s cars had become much more accessible. That is, getting at them to do work had become much easier. That's a feature that was never put into the East German cars; while we don't really need firmware components that need factory scale operations, we could probably benefit from the modularity that they plug into.

Pulling it all together, I can envisage things like the Trojan Car but with better accessibility and better fuel economy, maybe able to run off producer gas (something that would be very important in agriculture). I believe we would actually get a best of both worlds approach between factory and small scale operations if there were horizontal integration rather than (artificially subsidised) vertical integration; it could make sense to make power units separately and on sell them for a range of vehicles. (This is actually topical here in Australia, with Ford closing its motor manufacture operation in Geelong - the incentives are all wrong under today's economics, of course.)

But I ramble. Readers can find much of my thinking on this in the explanations I gave to someone who wanted to know how, say, bulldozers could get made without "actually existing" capitalism. That discussion is at the Mises blog here.

BTW, for more on producer gas, try googling on "Imbert gasifier" or "FEMA stratified downdraft gasifier".

July 21, 2007 4:00 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I think that the essential point is that without government interference, people will be free to try all kinds of things. In the auto industry, I'd expect to see throwbacks to the early days of the auto industry, but I also think that you would see more things like fuel-cell cars like the GM rollerskate design seen here. Local markets would be free to see what works for them, without it being imposed from above by governments and corporations. The diversity of solutions will be very interesting to see. One size most definitely does not fit all, and experimentation is a beautiful thing.

July 21, 2007 7:12 AM  
Blogger Mrki said...

Hi all, this is a very good thread and I want to add a link that is kind of interesting regarding this talk about technology.
Here is a link documenting an development of open source farm ( or village) including development of open source designed and constructed sawmill an compressed earth block machine and much more. It is producing the machine from the begining to the end on site and also in design for disassembling which helps when repair needed.
Hope this is interesting,
cheers, Sasha

July 23, 2007 1:04 AM  
Blogger Joshua Holmes said...

Consider televisions. In the early days of televisions, the sets were made for easy field servicing. Most of the time, all you had to do was look for a dark vacuum tube, and replace it.

The difference was, in the early days of televisions, you expected TVs to break and need repair. Who buys a TV today and expects it won't last a decade? I bought a $179 27" TV in 1997. It's never given me a single problem, and the TV is constantly on in my apartment even while I'm doing other things. Five years earlier, my mother bought a 35" or so TV for some reasonable price. It still sits in my mother's living room and works. No repairman has ever been to the house. In what universe would I want to waste a Saturday afternoon repairing my TV or patching my clothes?

Planned obsolescence may have been the goal, but I've paid pennies per hour of TV watched on my trusty 27". I expect it to run until low-def broadcasts themselves are abolished in a few years. Whatever awesome conspiracy the TV capitalists may have hoped to dream up, they've sold me one TV, at 10 hours wages, that has lasted ten years.

July 23, 2007 9:37 PM  
Blogger Werner said...

I agree that some consumer items like television sets have increased in reliability. I know this because I've repaired a few hundred in my lifetime. The major problem with earlier designs was the issue of heat. Tube televisions and radios tended to cook themselves to death over a decade or so. Use of discrete components ( separate parts like transistors, diodes, capacitors etc) have gradually been reduced to integrated circuits with a greater "survival" rate. Semiconductor devices are intrinsically "digital" and designing circuits around this fact increases efficiency overall. On the other hand most modern cars have few problems with their mechanical components,ie. many engines now go 200 thousand or more miles without burning oil or losing compression, but electronic problems are still an issue. Control modules for ignition and other functions have a habit of breaking down too often and no one has tried to design general replacements or provide schematic diagrams which would allow designers to put together replacements.

July 24, 2007 11:47 PM  
Blogger Kevin Carson said...

PML and Werner,

The example of cars is interesting. Even in inflation-adjusted terms, the level of capitalization required for Ford's first Model-T plant was so low you'd suspect somebody misplaced a decimal point by several places. The price of the car was considerably higher in terms of the average wage, but still within the range of a large part of the population. And it gives the lie to the claim that particular products, like engine blocks, require giant blockbuster plants.

As Werner suggests, the internal combustion engine itself is probably at a historic high in terms of durability and reliability. The problem with the car, as with so many other consumer goods, is all the additional bells and whistles that make it more complicated and prone to breakdown--in this case the electronic systems. Along the same lines, I'm simply astounded at all the "Home of the Future!" whizzbangery in the popular press about modems in refrigerators, microwaves, etc., so that you can run your friggin' house on just-in-time delivery while you live 80 hours a week in your cubicle. I want a basic, simple fridge and microwave that work, and will last--not a bunch of extra breakdown-prone crap that adds to the purchase price so that I have to spend my life working to pay the credit card bills for it.


Digital TV may be the great capitalist conspiracy of all time. There's no planned obsolescence like state-mandated planned obsolescence.

August 14, 2007 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other day I gave a talk on a related area, and among the feedback I heard about a project for a no-added-whistles car Renault is co-producing with the Romanian firm Dacia: the Logan car, about half the cost of what is now the norm. It bears looking at.

In the early days of commercial cars the power plants were often made separately, e.g. the JAP engine was used in many British motorcycles and cyclecars. Likewise, gentlemen used to buy bare bones high end vehicles and have the body built specially - customising was the norm. That is how the Rolls Royce "Roi de Belges" variant got established. There really is some economy of scale in automotive power plant and transmission manufacture, mainly having to do with making intricate equipment robust and reliable under field conditions; that made a synergy that needed certain tradesmen, between the small arms, clock making and typewriter industries and the automotive industry. Still, some of it was genuine "economies of scale within the firm" as well as "economies of scale outside the firm". But that could have led to horizontal integration, not the vertical integration that we got. That in turn relates to anti-monopoly measures that detected and punished horizontal integration but let the vertical kind sail through - even when it was actually worse (they created barriers to entry and harmful oligopoly, with inadequate economies of scale in countries like Australia - which "justifies" destroying our domestic manufacture completely). There are parallels and antiparallels with today's computers buying in chips made elsewhere, with e.g. "Intel inside" campaigns to prevent commodification. Misguided anti-monopoly measures also created this unbundled playing field in the computer area all ready to be grabbed by Microsoft; all the level playing field ensured was that someone would be Bill Gates, not that Bill Gates would not be Bill Gates.

August 17, 2007 10:35 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home