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The Lightbulb Conspiracy—Why Consumer Products Don’t Last

March 21st 2011

Book Covers - Lightbulb #2

There once was a time when consumer goods were built to last. Then, in the 1920s, a group of businessmen realized that the longer their product lasted, the less money they made, thus ‘Planned Obsolescence’ was born, and manufacturers have been engineering products to fail ever since.

Cosima Dannoritzer’s documentary The Light Bulb Conspiracy beautifully separates fact from myth as it charts the rise and evolution of Planned Obsolescence from the early 20th century up to the present, and looks at its impact on our current society. The sight of thousands of tons of electronic equipment dumped in Ghana, Africa, in what used to be a natural reserve—which is now completely destroyed and polluted, is a harrowing reminder of the dark side of the consumer society.

What makes this film fascinating is that it goes beyond the environmental frame to tackle a much more fundamental aspect of the issue—the economic logic behind Planned Obsolescence. As an advertising magazine warned in 1928, “an article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy for business.” With examples ranging from light bulbs to nylon stockings, from cars to iPods and inkjet printers, the film deftly explores how Planned Obsolescence has become the basis for economic growth with a highly crafted combination of investigative research and rare archive footage.

An European success

The film, produced by Media 3.14, based in Spain, and Article Z, based in France, and backed by ARTE, TVE, TVC and other international broadcasters, is enjoying a great success in Europe. It has gathered over 2.5 millions television viewers so far and hundreds of thousands of streamings on the broadcaster’s websites.

Beyond the figures, the film’s impact can be gauged by other indicators. In Spain, the word “obsolescence” (an obscure engineering term prior to the showing of the film) has become part of the current vocabulary and shows up in the press, the media and the blogosphere. Indeed, the film speaks to a large and diverse audience: the director has been asked to appear at Q&A sessions in settings as different as an anti-capitalist community center in Barcelona and an élite international school in Switzerland where, in their own words, “the ruling classes of the future” are educated.

The Light Bulb Conspiracy was screened March 17 and 18 at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington DC. It won the Best Science and Technology Film award at the 2010 Guangzhou International Documentary Film Festival (China) and is nominated to the upcoming Focal International Awards in London.

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