“I meet an American sailor,” writes Alexis de Tocqueville in his 1840 masterwork Democracy in America, “and I ask him why the vessels of his country are constituted so as not to last for long, and he answers me without hesitation that the art of navigation makes such rapid progress each day, that the most beautiful ship would soon become nearly useless if it lasted beyond a few years. In these chance words said by a coarse man and in regard to a particular fact, I see the general and systematic idea by which a great people conducts all things.”
Far more than a marketing ploy, planned obsolescence is an expression of a deep, romantic faith in technology. It’s a faith that Tocqueville saw as central to the American soul, argues Benjamin Storey in an illuminating essay in The New Atlantis:
For Tocqueville, technology is not a set of morally neutral means employed by human beings to control our natural environment. Technology is an existential disposition intrinsically connected to the social conditions of modern democratic peoples in general and Americans in particular. On this view, to be an American democrat is to be a technological romantic. Nothing is so radical or difficult to moderate as a romantic passion, and the Americans Tocqueville observed accepted only frail and minimal restraints on their technophilia. We have long since broken many of those restraints in our quest to live up to our poetic self-image. …
Democratic peoples, Tocqueville [writes], “imagine an extreme point where liberty and equality meet and merge,” and, in our less sober moments, we believe that technology can help us get there by so thoroughly vanquishing natural scarcity and the limits of human nature that we can eliminate unfreedom and inequality as such. We might be able to improve the human condition so far that what seemed in the past to be permanent facts of human life — ruling and being ruled, wealth and poverty, virtue and vice — can be left behind as we achieve the full realization of our democratic ideal of liberty and equality.
The glory of this view manifests itself in admirable technical skill and an outpouring of ingenious, if disposable, goods. But when embraced as a philosophy, a way of seeing the world, it turns destructive.
Not content with the obvious truth that our technical know-how has made us, on average, healthier and more prosperous than peoples of the past, we insist that it has also made us happier and better — indeed, that human happiness and virtue are technical problems, problems our rightly-celebrated practical know-how can settle, once and for all. Tocqueville saw how the terminology of commerce in the 1830s was coming to penetrate all aspects of American language, “the first instrument of thought.” As our technological utopian project advances, as our science enters further into the domain of the human heart and mind, we come to see our lives less in terms of joys, virtues, sins, and miseries and more in terms of chemical imbalances, hormones, good moods, and depressions — material problems susceptible to technological solutions, not moral challenges or existential conditions with which we must learn to live.
We are flawed not because we are flawed but because we were born into an insufficiently technologized world.
Image of Oculus Rift: Wikipedia.