Planned Obsolescence’s Road Trip: Detroit to Santa Clara

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“Yeah, but I’m sayin’, that TruCoat, you don’t get it and you get oxidization problems. It’ll cost you a heck of lot more’n five hundred—”

— William H. Macy as auto dealer Jerry Lundegaard, in Fargo

MADISON, Wis. — The greatest car song ever composed is not “Dead Man’s Curve” or “Fun, Fun, Fun (’Til Your Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away)” or even Johnny Bond’s comic rap, “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The winner is a rare Chuck Berry blues lyric called “No Money Down.” It is the essential car song not just because it evokes the American male’s macho romance with speed, power and chromium glamour. It captures in microcosm the U.S. automobile industry’s guiding rules for car design, advertising, profit and cultural hegemony over the open road.

The song depicts a car-crazy kid who has barely two nickels to rub together. He drives into a Cadillac dealership in his “broken down raggedy Ford.” It’s 1955. The kid specifies his dream Caddy — a yellow four-door de Ville, of course — reciting the options in his dream package. He wants a continental spare and wire-chrome wheels, plus power steering and power brakes, a powerful motor with a jet off-take. He insists on air conditioning and automatic heat and “a full rollaway bed in my back seat.” This is not to mention (but he does), a short-wave radio, TV and a phone: “You know I gotta talk to my baby when I’m ridin’ alone.”

Wait, there’s more. Chuck’s starry-eyed hero also demands four carburetors, two straight exhausts and an engine that burns aviation fuel, “no matter what the cost.” Add to this railroad air horns and a military spot. And, “I want a five-year guarantee on everything I got.”

This ironic snatch of rock ’n’ roll, and the carpe diem ethic it epitomizes, is a masterpiece of social insight. In three verses, Chuck Berry capsulizes a century of consumer economics, from the birth of the horseless carriage to the digital age.

It helps to remember that when Henry Ford started rolling Model Ts off his assembly line on Piquette Avenue, he wittily promised his customers any color they wanted, “as long as it’s black.” It took a generation for Detroit’s mass-production automakers to recognize the profit potential of mimicking the fashion industry. By mid-century, Ford Motors was systematically offering a rainbow of paint jobs, a plethora of optional features (railroad air horns and a military spot) and, finally, a total annual Fashion-Week re-design of every make and model — thus rendering every previous iteration embarrassingly square and démodé.

Three basic marketing tenets refined by the auto industry have evolved into a holy trinity in consumer electronics. The first principle, perpetuated through decades from Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, is the recruitment of unwitting customers as guinea pigs — often at peril for their lives.

When the first Model Ts and Stanley Steamers hit the road, no one knew much about how to steer them, how fast they might go, how they might break down and whom they might run over when a driver lost control. As Fords faltered, fell apart, blew up, crashed and killed people, the manufacturer paid heed, made corrections and goosed the technology. But, in the realm of safety, Henry Ford and his rivals — because they were competing — scrimped. They garnered the tacit consent of federal and state governments, who built new highways to accommodate this immense industry and tolerated thousands of road deaths as the price of progress.

Similarly, when Silicon Valley became the darling of capitalism, no government agency stepped into examine, say, Bill Gates’ quirky, glitchy, counterintuitive operating system. Microsoft depended on users to find the myriad flaws and suffer the frequent crashes that were literally built into its systems. Then, responding to a million complaints from unsatisfied, but captive, customers, Gates’ designers went merrily back to the drawing board. In a while, Bill declared a new model year, releasing a re-designed, slightly less screwed-up chassis. For users, of course, the inevitable outcome was more crashes, more complaints, back to the drawing board — and the launch of a brand-new lather, rinse, repeat cycle.

“…rich Corinthian leather…”

Back to Chuck Berry. As he so eloquently articulated, the auto industry grew and prospered by overwhelming car buyers with accessories, most of them as superfluous as a jet off-take (whatever that was) and mohair seat covers (which Chuck inexplicably left out of his song, possibly because he couldn’t think of a workable rhyme for “mohair”). The beauty of this gimmick was that a dizzying flood of options, besides juicing the price of a car, neatly camouflaged more serious flaws in the actual technology.

Remember Ralph Nader?

In consumer electronics, this diversionary tactic of accessory overload has reached its apotheosis in the Apple Store, where “apps” seem to be commingling lubriciously in the basement, where they breed like fruit flies. Your typical smartphone has access to a bewildering arsenal of apps, most of them less useful than white sidewalls and giant dice on the rearview mirror. Like an infestation of algae, apps sprawl across a dozen screen displays, defying the user to figure out how they got there. Some apps are paid-for, sucking up micro-charges with every finger tap. Others are free, but they insidiously guide users to stuff they can buy.

Anyone who saw William H. Macy pitching the TruCoat undercoating in Fargo has a good idea of how the App Store works.

Both of these consumer snares come under the heading of planned obsolescence, a principle — in the automobile industry — akin to its Eucharist. A well-built, faithfully maintained car or truck can stay on the road as long as 50 years, through hundreds of thousands of miles. By the same token, an appless 3G mobile handset made by Nokia in 2005 or Hewlett-Packard in 2014, can still today make phone calls — which, as you might remember — was (once) the point.

I remember a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in (I think) 2014, starring Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Accompanied by dancers in neon leotards, Carly gushed about the latest “innovations” in H-P’s mobile phones (a product line since abandoned). There was actually nothing new to announce, except that this year’s model came in a whole bunch of bright, eye-catching paint jobs, including — as I recall — tiger stripes, polka dots, leopard prints and football-team logos. Carly was so overcome with excitement that she joined with the dancers and tripped the light fantastic.

Next year, of course, H-P had new phones, new body paint and new “form factors,” rendering Carly’s onset of terpsichore an unpleasant moment better forgotten by anyone who’d been there. Meanwhile, mobile telephony, like Henry Ford’s rickety Model Ts, remained an adventure that forced customers to operate under the motto: “Can you hear me now?”

The point, for H-P’s cellphone experiment, was that this year’s version was obsolete the moment Carly stepped out onto the stage in Las Vegas. It had to be, because next year’s new improved phones were already in the marketing pipeline.

Now, of course, Detroit and Silicon Valley are testing a new marriage, with a new technology that promises to make obsolete every car on the road today, the allegedly “autonomous vehicle.” The stated rationale for this exercise — road safety — is a cynical lie. There is, at the moment, no coherent technical or regulatory oversight for AVs. As usual, it’s the Wild West out there. As usual, we’re trusting narcissist tycoons (e.g., Elon Musk) to conduct a conscientious and ethical experiment which, if it fails, will injure and kill people. It already has.

As usual, we have met the guinea pig. And he is us.

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