The Light Bulb Conspiracy

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Pyramids of Waste, The Light Bulb Conspiracy'
Directed by Cosima Dannoritzer
Distributed by Online CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
Genre Documentary
Duration 52 minutes and 49 seconds
Language(s) of origin English
Country of origin Norway

The Light Bulb Conspiracy is a film on planned obsolescence : the economic definition of a product's assessed life time.


Lightbulbs and planned obsolescence

The history of planned obsolescence is studied through the ironically significant symbol of the history of the lightbulb : ironically, whereas it should symbolize ingenuity, it here amounts to an epitomy of consumerism because manufacturers deliberately make short-lived products following Bernard London supposedly brilliant idea of imposing a life time to objects to recover from the 1929 ecomnomic crash, to boost business and the employment rate.[1]

But by trying to enforce this law, London only aimed at institutionalizing a phenomenon that had already began with the Phoebus Cartel[2] that imposed companies to limit the life time of lightbulbs. (While engineers had invented bulbs that could last for up to 100 000 hours, they fined companies if they refused to lower it to 1 000 hours. If his proposal was never effective, some 20 years later, the same move resurfaced but perniciously twisted : people should wish to consume, they were to be seduced by fashion and trend, a much more efficient way towards consumerism than a mere law. For Brooks Stevens, the key idea was to launch fancy items that would look as a must to transform ordinary customers into obsessed consumers. If this idea was first typically American, it soon went viral (except for communist countries where the key word was perforce quality).

This story is enframed by a similar secret concerning inkjet printers[3] as a crafty user finds out that printers are intentionally designed with a flaw that will reduce their life time. Instead of proposing to replace the faulty part, the service center advises the user to buy a new printer, and the cost of the part added to that of the shipping easily convinces the customer that this solution is indeed more effective.

These examples of are not mere anecdotes, we must realize such wasteful proceedings happen to all of us eveyday throughout the world.

Planned obsolescence is the solution business people and economists have come up with to make the system work : mass-production implies the need for an ever-growing demand from consumers. Thus parallel to this tactic from manufacturers, people are led to buy to satisfy desires rather than needs.

Back in the 1930's, people were not aware that our planet was a finite source of material but as things have come to such an extent, we now crudely face the limits of this doomed system.

Opposite views today

Engineers and designers are trained to work accordingly : each company sets its own policy as to how often the consumer should be led into opting for a new item by deciding on technical or aesthetical criterias for the life time of a product. Brooks Stevens' own son defends this position reasserting the consumer still has his free will, he is the one who eventually decides to buy or not to buy. Some engineers may feel conscience-stricken at having to design poor quality products on purpose.

More and more voices raise to expose the unsustainability and irrationality of this system.[4]. For Serge Latouche, it's just as if this economic machine were a racing car without a pilot and that nobody is able to stop before it crashes. But there too, ironically, the consumer can use his power, if he chooses to, thanks to modern means of communication to fight back marketing and share his experience of a badly designed product, a step that can annihilate the marketing efforts of a company (as with the case of the battery of the IPod). So much so that firms now tend to base their marketing on their environmental policy.

The consequences of planned obsolescence

What's to be done with all these broken or outdated objects? Obviously, they have to be discarded somewhere. Poorer developing countries are thus transformed into deadly toxic eyesores, dustbins of the consumption society.

But there too, modern communication means enable people to exchange, collaborate and resist unethical policies (proposing downloadable softwares to counteract the designed flaw for the planned obsolescence of a printer, eg).

Looping the loop

Back to lightbulbs, this time to try to react rationally by making leds that last for 25 years : an altogether opposite policy that sounds sustainable and indeed the only way out to maintain business. Environmental and business matters need not be antinomic ; a new concept emerges called Cradle to cradle : it consists in imitating what happens in nature, ie everything operates in a cyclic way and the remains of an organism are the nutrients of another one. If manufacturers use only biodegradable materials, a product will be reusable.

A change in manufacturing policies can't be enough to solve the major issues of energy shortages, of pollution or of limited resources. This must go with a total change in people's minds, an ethical culture of respect for others and for our planet. This new way of life is degrowth, it sounds frightening to economists and business people because it implies a total revolution in our functioning and our habits.

Serge Latouche concludes by quoting Mahatma Gandhi :
The world has enough resources to meet the needs of everyone, though not to satisfy everyone’s greed.

See also


  1. Bernard London's 1932 pamphlet, pdf
  2. The Phoebus Cartel
  3. Video of The dirty little secret of inkjet printers
  4. Serge Latouche, the way towards degrowth

Internal links

External links

Noia 64 apps kdict.png Portal Living together – Access here to articles relating to the Living together portal.
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