May 30, 2014

Planned Obsolescence

This essay examines the struggle at the heart of the planned obsolescence struggle; summed up in two contrasting quotes:

1) "Anyone who believes that infinite growth is compatible with a finite planet is either a fool or an economist" (Kenneth Boulding), and

2) "Any professor who revises a textbook but still makes it so students can use the old version is a fool"

Planned obsolescence occurs when a manufacturer of a product designs it in such a way that it becomes obsolete in a set time period. The product can become obsolete due to mechanical failure, or more complicatedly, from it's becoming unfashionable (see bottom for full list of planned obsolescence strategies). The purpose of a planned obsolescence strategy is to have the consumer replace the product with a new one. A never ending gobstopper, although a great product, won't make a company any money because the child would only ever need to buy one. Planned obsolescence can become a dangerous business practice as consumers become resistant to repurchase if the product becomes obsolete to quickly. For example, the gobstopper that only last a couple seconds won't be repurchased by the child as he will choose a competing product. Planned obsolescence has negative effects on consumer welfare and the environment, but is not a conspiracy and can be combated through increased industry competition, consumer value of product durability, and public policy.

A longer product life time is seen by consumers as an advantage, therefore a longer lasting product will, all else being equal, be more competitive than the shorter lasting product.  In a competitive market, if consumers value a long product life, manufacturers will deliver that feature. This defense of planned obsolescence, unfortunately, relies on the premise that consumers have an understanding of the product life span during the purchase decision making process, as well as value that factor in their decision. The success of planned obsolescence strategies can be curtailed by consumer education and fair disclosure of expected product life time. There are many other factors that consumers will take into account when purchasing a product, and it is completely reasonable that even will full knowledge of the durability of two products, at the same price a consumer may opt for the less durable product in light of superior product attributes in other areas. To reduce planned obsolescence Consumers should place more value on the eco-efficient and sustainable attributes of products.

Planned obsolescence is often viewed as an evil conspiracy on behalf of the manufacturers and marketers, but it should be viewed as a competitive force compatible with capitalism. The later notion is more compatible with a sober view of the market. The defenders of the conspiracy notion need maintain that the main manufacturers in the specific industry have entered into a pact to maintain an obsolescence scheme. This claim only works if the industry is monopolistic or oligopolistic because they are more sensitive to industry agreements. A pact of this kind is illegal under most national business laws, so no new policy would need to be created, but simply enforced.

Other critics of planned obsolescence claim outright that it is a market failure; therefore it demands government intervention to reduce it. For example, Apple has designed its iPods in such a way that the battery is irreplaceable. This practice should be unacceptable. Government could enforce certain manufacturing practices to ensure fair play. It should work towards introducing standardization of some elements in products such as printer tone cartridges, shavers, and batteries. This standardization gives more control to the consumer, increases competition towards supplying the product at a lower cost and reduces the ability for an individual company to have control over the product life. We saw this type of intervention recently with cell-phone chargers, and I don't think there is a cell-phone owner out there that can claim this was a bad idea.

Government can also reduce planned obsolescence problems by introducing taxes. There are two methods that it can employ: a tax that effects the sellers, or a tax that effects the buyers. The latter takes the form of environmental fees that the consumer pays when he makes the purchase - this in effect internalizes the value that consumers should have for eco-friendly products that they may not have. In an educated environment, where consumers value their environmental footprint, this would not be necessary. The method that effects sellers takes the form of sellers being forced to take back expired products and recycle them. This increases the cost of the product to the sellers, and will be reflected in higher product pricing. Both have the same effect on pricing, but I argue that the latter has a more efficient result.

Planned Obsolescence if left unchecked may diminish consumer welfare and may have unsustainable effects on the environment. Planned obsolescence can be controlled through competitive market forces, consumer education, and government policy. There are numerous things that you can do to help prevent the effects of planned obsolescence. During the purchase decision, put emphasis on the longevity of the product and choose products that are repairable and up-gradable. Don't replace products simply because they look worn-out or are no longer 'fashionable' - make it fashionable to be eco-friendly. Boycott companies that don't support its old products. Demand government regulations on planned obsolescence. Each one of the six strategies listed below can be fought against by consumers and pleas to government. It is up to us to shift the consumer paradigm to one that values long lasting, eco-friendly products.

Isaac Snow
Replacing yet another iPod in Vernon, BC
May 2014

(Appendix) Planned Obsolescence Strategies:

  1. Limited function life (ie iPod batteries die after 2 years)
  2. Limited opportunities for repair (ie iPod batteries can not be replaced)
  3. Design aesthetics (ie iPod gets scratched easily prompting disposal)
  4. Fashion (ie new iPod is hip, old iPod is super lame)
  5. Technological updates (ie new iPod holds more music - new iPod is better)
  6. Technological incompatibility (ie old iPod doesn't work with new iTunes)

May 16, 2014

Girl Archetypes in Entertainment by Sandra Turner

The feminist essay "Construction of the Female Self: Feminist Readings of the Disney Heroine" explores the makeup of the female self as portrayed in Disney films. The writers demand that Disney create female characters that are driven out of their comfort zones and find their own unique voices. They demand that the female characters develop a "sense of self in a culture other than the dominant Anglo culture" with a destiny that is not simply that of "heterosexual romantic fulfillment". As with many of my critiques of feminist literature, I believe that these issues exist with all types of people; furthermore, I believe that everyone has the right to define their own persona even if it is one that is not typically acceptable for their gender/race/class etc.

The essay purports that most classic Disney heroines are not very heroic; most needing to be rescued by a male love interest. The male characters typically have complex and numerous goals and aspirations; the female characters have a more simple goal of the "happy ending", which is typically marriage to the male. However, as "Construction of the Female Self" explores, Disney has been creating more complex and rewarding female characters in recent years. Even modern films have, however, fallen into the trap of creating narrow-minded, stereotypical characters. Although not a Disney film, "Brave" is a recent film that stars a young female heroine named Princess Merida. One of the complaints that I have personally heard is that she was rendered on film to be more pretty that she should have been. The character has complexity in that she defies a long standing (presumably male created) custom for the better of her kingdom. She must fight a curse with only her own physical prowess. However, the film studio still decided to make her into a fairly typical pretty girl (with red hair to mix it up).

One of the key issues, I think, is the influence that Disney has on the perceptions of young girls and the general public. I do not think that Disney has any special ethical or social obligation when creating its female characters in its films. Disney has been creating more complex characters because that is what the viewing audience wants to see. Disney simply reflects the general consensus of what a female should be. "Construction of the Female Self" does not explore the general template used for character other than female heroines. I am sure that a study done into the other characters would show that even the male heroes follow a set pattern. Most of the males are interested in restoring order and finding a woman to marry. If it is demanded that film makers should create complex female characters, it should also be demanded of them to create complex male characters (and, I suppose, we should add in non-binary sex types too).

Disney creates character archetypes that its young viewers see as models of people, behaviors and personalities. These archetypes are artificial reflections of reality. As a young girl I not only believed authentic the motivations of Disney heroines, I aspired to mimic their personalities and assimilate them into my persona. It is not, however, the case that all young girls will be greatly influenced by these characters. A young boy can choose to mimic the princess too. A young girl can choose to mimic the masculine hero. A feminine trait doesn't necessarily only appeal to females. The writers of "Construction of the Female Self" fear that girls will develop narrow-minded, Disney heroine ideologies; but I conclude that that is a narrow-minded fear. In society today, it is more acceptable for a girl to dress in a masculine manner (jeans, boots, shirts, short hair) than for a boy to dress in a feminine manner (long hair, make-up, skirts). This seems to suggest that young girls have the ability to adopt the personas of the male characters more easily than a young boy can adopt the personas of the female characters.

Females had over many centuries of male domination lost power both economically and politically. For this power to be restored females must make an active attempt at reclaiming it, and one of the first steps is to regain confidence in their own individual selves. Disney, in this age of movie watching, has inadvertently been giving a key role in the development of the female psyche. Young girls watching the films see what they can do with life. With the recent improvements in the female construction, I believe that this internal power can be applied to all genders. Currently everyone is trapped inside an androcentric society, but I believe the age of gender roles is coming to a close, and the future is one where the individual defines his own character and role in society without gender bias.

Sandra Turner
Adopting masculine traits in Vernon, BC
May 2014

May 2, 2014

Confessions of a Canadian Torrent-User by Isaac Snow

"The Pirate Bay Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world. This is not a bad thing."

In Canada we have little to fear about torrenting. In years of using peer-to-peer networks, I have had no issues with any legal matters, and I have yet to hear any personal accounts of personal issues concerning the legality of sharing copyrighted material. This essay seeks to understand the moral issues concerning digital piracy.

The internet is a glorious place for sharing knowledge and accessing knowledge. Websites like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and even the better pages of Wikipedia allow people access to a wide range of topics that is only matched in good libraries. But purchasing a computer and getting an internet connection, or even simply having a shared computer, can be much more economically reasonable than building a library for people to go to. The City of Kelowna has three different libraries, including a huge one downtown. It even offers intra-library loans, where I can request to borrow a book from another library and the library will get it shipped to my location. I once ordered a book from Ontario... they shipped a book to me from over 3500 km away. Torrenting is like living right beside amazing library, like having a friend with an enormous record collection, like attending a school with advanced computer software.

Torrenting is a specific method of sharing and duplicating media through the internet. Instead of shipping a book from Ontario I could go onto one of numerous websites and torrent an electronic version of the book. If the book is unrestricted, without copyrights, I could often go to a hosting site such a Project Gutenberg and receive a direct download. Torrenting is an alternative method from direct download in that it uses peers from around the world to download from and is the method often used to share copyrighted material that sites like Project Gutenberg would not host. A torrent tracker uses a specific code to receive information concerning a media file. It then proceeds to download the file from information hosted and sent from peers (other people around the world that have the torrent file and the media file). Essentially, the computer is creating a duplicate file of a file numerous people from around the world currently have.

Pete Townshend of The Who fame, in a talk on torrenting, related pirating his music to going onto his property and stealing his daughters bicycle. This is irrational and a fallacy. Torrenting is not stealing because to steal is to take. In this case nothing is being lost; as a download I have not stolen his daughters bike, I have been given the blueprints and my computer recreated the bicycle. A torrent, in effect, creates a second bicycle. His daughter gets to keep hers, and now I can give my daughter one too. There is no theft as there is no object of thievery. Torrenting Townshend's rock music is illegal because it breaks his copyright on the music. A copyright is the the exclusive legal right, given to an originator or an assignee to print, publish, perform, film, or record literary, artistic, or musical material, and to authorize others to do the same. Because I have not received permission from Townshend I am illegally duplicating his music, but not stealing.

This conflation of stealing and duplicating is perpetuated by the confusion that by torrenting you are 'stealing' by (possibly) taking away the potential that you would have purchased the media. I would have bought The Who's album but why bother? I just grabbed a digital copy for free! I put 'possibly' in brackets in the first statement because I could always go out and purchase the album after I've downloaded it. In fact, its quite possible that I would have never heard the album, or given it a chance until I downloaded it; this has a greater potential with lesser-known bands - which is probably why the main critics of torrenting are big name bands, people who take it for granted that they won the career lottery when they were able to create music for a living.

Duplicating copyrighted media has always existed. However the computer age has complicated things. Computer media, in relation to traditional forms of media such as vinyl, fall under a different category of good due to its form. In standard economic terms, digital files are public goods being non-excludable (anyone can get it) and non-rivalrous (there is an unlimited quantity). Traditionally these media types have been private goods, excludable and rivalrous. Anti-torrentors, if they do not use the term, refer to the free-rider market failure when they claim that media will cease to be produced if torrenting becomes the norm.

An obvious criticism of torrent sites is that the statement above, "Universal access to human knowledge is in our grasp, for the first time in the history of the world" is thoroughly misleading as Pirate Bay and the majority of torrent sites have a lack of educational material relative to the mass amounts of entertainment media on display. This however is no fault of the system but rather displays the interests of the users. If torrenting becomes a more popular thing we should expect to see an increase in educational material.

One of my favourite comic strip sites The Dog House Diaries operates under a "Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License". Which means, as the website states, "you may share, copy, reprint, or publish [the] comics as long as you provide the source." I look forward to more creators using this method. Other creators operate under advertisements and donations for their income (The Partially Examined Life podcast, Red Letter Media, etc.) New funding techniques such as those employed by Kickstarter enable creators to get the funding they need to create these projects. Often times, in the case of computer media creations, the funders simply get first dibs on the media and credit as producers.

I look forward to the day where musicians and producers aren't paid millions for creating pop songs. True musicians will pursue their love without the promise of a well-paying career. And with modern recording technology creating a high quality album is possible on a budget. I look forward to the day when software is designed openly and programmers build upon each others work. The future is friendly, and one where people who work in entertainment and computer coding do so for the love of the craft and survive on charitable contributions and/or a second job.

Update June 12:

Tesla Motors have removed their ownership of all their patents so anyone can use them.

Taken from:

"When I started out with my first company, Zip2, I thought patents were a good thing and worked hard to obtain them. And maybe they were good long ago, but too often these days they serve merely to stifle progress, entrench the positions of giant corporations and enrich those in the legal profession, rather than the actual inventors"

This is the same attitude that I have long held towards all intellectual protection. The world would be better off without it. Creators will still create. Innovates will still innovate. And all will be more effective with the ability to access, to use, and to build on past creations.

Update June 21:

Record labels are now claiming that legally purchases MP3's are too long-lasting and convenient to allow consumers to resell them. Link. So now the record companies don't even want us to have a product at all. When a consumer purchases a digital music file they are in reality simply purchasing the right to listen to the song. The consumer owns nothing. It would follow then that a 'pirate' is also 'stealing' nothing.

Isaac Snow
Busy working at his day job (and totally not duplicating copyrighted material) in Vernon, BC
March 2014