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Technology made to be broken

Manufacturers need to take some responsibility for our 'throw away' habits.

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My dad bought me a good watch when I was 16. It was a 23-jewel, self-winding Bulova built to last a lifetime. It carried an implicit recognition that I'd grown up - sort of - and that keeping time, meeting deadlines, being where I was supposed to be were all important considerations for the adult I'd become.

Anticipating my oldest son's 16th birthday, I asked him what kind of watch he wanted. But the pleasure of wearing this "badge of maturity" was lost on him.

"Can I have an iPod instead?" he said. I've been considering his request ever since.

iPods have clocks in them. So do cellphones. My son already has a cellphone, so he doesn't really need a watch.

"No watch?" I asked.

"They're old school," he said, meaning out-of-date, out moded, obsolete.

Sensing a trend, I asked, "Do any of your friends wear watches?"

"No," he said. And it's true.

Likewise, nearly 60 percent of American teens have never owned or worn a wristwatch. Wristwatch consumption is in a spiral of decline at a rate slightly exceeding 10 percent a year.

When I realized my son was right, peripheral things suddenly began to make sense. In recent years, I've been confused by attempts to include GPS locaters, cellphones, calculators, PDAs, and even cigarette lighters in wristwatches. Again and again I asked myself, "Does anybody really want this stuff?"

Of course, the answer is, "No."

From the perspective of a declining market, however, these wacky new products reveal watch manufacturers' desperate search for something they can continue to manufacture and sell. The production of any technological device goes hand in hand with the question: "Where is next year's market going to come from?" Repetitive consumption, after all, drives American and global economies.

Take, for example, the iPod my son wants.

Obviously, Apple has come a long way since it accidentally sold GUI (graphical user interface) to Microsoft for peanuts. This time, starting with an ordinary MP3 player, Apple cleverly branded downloadable songs as a way of guaranteeing both the songs' quality and iTune's continuous sales. Meanwhile, they upgrade their player continuously. As often as possible, Apple introduces new, improved, smaller, faster, more powerful models that make their predecessors seem much less desirable. This is what we call "technological obsolescence."


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