Planned obsolescence is a term that we have normally heard applied to cars and other sophisticated modern machines. It relates to the notion that companies cannot make machines last for too long of a period of time, if they, the companies, want to continue to survive. Companies need to have their machines break down, fall apart, according to this reasoning, so that a customer will be motivated to purchase a replacement. The American automobile industry was particularly influenced by this idea for many years, and it was not uncommon for many car owners to replace their cars annually. Of course, Japanese car companies took advantage of this American strategy to start producing cars that didn’t have to be replaced so often, that in fact lasted years and years. In so doing, the Japanese were able to capture a large segment not only of the American automobile market, but of the international automobile market as well. Nevertheless, the American strategy has continued to have a large effect on other areas of work apart from cars. Around the world, in many societies, workers are thought of as machines that break down and have to be replaced. When their parts wear out, they are disposed of. Machines are after all a coordinated agglomeration of parts. It’s not that they have a special coherent bonded organic identity that is greater than the sum of their parts. And the model of performing like a machine is of course what is used for the workers in modern technological society. In many cases, they are put into the role of contract workers with no benefits. In the United States, the number of unionized workers has decreased dramatically, so most workers aren’t receiving the protection of unions. Universities are filling their teaching posts with more and more part-time, non-tenured-track professors.
This is all because workers are not looked on as being fully human beings who are part of a bonded community. Workers are being treated like machines. And therefore it is like they were being treated like aliens, like strangers. Like outsiders. Particularly, older human beings are being discarded when their utilitarian value diminishes. It becomes much easier to do this when the person being treated in this way is not considered, on one level, to be part of a community anyway, but rather is considered to be a stranger.
And the horrible thing about this is that as machines become mirrors for how we should behave and we start to model ourselves after machines, we reject ourselves as we become let go by companies. We become strangers to ourselves. We turn on ourselves when we can no longer meet the public expectations of our job. And this is true when we are let go, not just because we are no longer performing our jobs well, but also when companies let people go as a cost-cutting measure. And when the cost-cutting occurs, a part of us still asks ourselves what we did wrong to merit a kind of expulsion from the work community. How did we fail as machine wannabes? And wherever there is this kind of public rejection, not only does the shamed part of us become detached from the rest of us, not only does the shamed part of us become a stranger to us, but it is almost like we develop psychological auto-immune disease, when we turn against a part of our minds, a part of our senses of self. Modeling ourselves after machines, we become predisposed to lose the coherence of our senses of self. Which means we develop a predisposition to lose an important aspect of our humanity.
As we increasingly become defined by machines and machine processes, we, in turn, define ourselves and others by some supposedly objective standards of machine behavior perfection. To the extent we don’t live up to our standards, we discard ourselves and the people around us. The truth is that not only do employers let their workers go frequently today, but workers tend to jump from job to job. Couples get divorced more frequently these days. Friends break up. Members of families stop speaking with one another. It is difficult for families to hold together when its members are expected to operate and think like machines in their work life and do things perfectly.
And as we push people away from us, and we become strangers to everyone including ourselves, we end up barely alive in an experiential vacuum. And we become numb like machines. Because, when all is said and done, machines don’t have a coherent sense of self that allows them to feel things. Machines are programmed to carry out a series of consecutive actions to achieve a goal outside of themselves. The goals are human goals. As people increasingly become machines in modern technological society, it becomes more difficult for them to develop a coherent human sense of self. Humans have a non-delimited infinity set of behavioral possibilities, while even the most complicated of modern machines only have a delimited infinity set of behavioral possibilities. Machines are good for certain patterns of work action, but when people start to increasingly model themselves after machines, they are giving up a lot of the behavioral possibilities that define then as humans. When humans model themselves after machines, they give themselves up to diminished infinities of behavior.
Finally, an ultimate goal of humans is that of making and preserving organic imprints. Organic imprints are extensions of an organic coherent sense of self. Imprints are the vehicle by which defined coherent beings feel alive and prepare for death. Machines, lacking an organic coherent sense of self, can never feel alive, and if they can’t feel alive, they have no life for which to prepare for death. Humans give up so much modeling themselves after machines and allowing others to treat them like machines. In essence, they give up the whole human narrative.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow