Becker, Muller: End of Obsolescence: Engineering the Post-Consumer Economy [E-Tech 2009 Notes]

Here are my rough notes from the ETech 09 talk by Lane Becker and Thor Muller of Get Satisfaction.

The End of Obsolescence: Engineering the Post-Consumer Economy
System of Consumerism: Economists think recessionary patterns (eg cobblers, repair) are transient and spending/consumption will return. Disposable culture. Planned obsolescence, lock-in, bigger is better –> The Ownership Society. No such thing as an infinite loop (eg pop dynamics). Rise & fall of growth and recessions is taken as a given of a natural cycle. Landscape amnesia. People forget what it used to be like. Our situation looks much more like a sharp asymptotic curve leading to a much sharper crash. Consumerism, growth curve is crashing quickly. Speed kills but it can force us to change in real time.

The Great Compression. A squeezing out perceived value to leave only real value in our economy. We have under-estimated the costs and over-estimated the value. Value destruction at work (slide shows sectors of economy with huge chunks that make things of no value or move value around, esp wholesale trade, manufacturing, financial investment – these are being selected against). NYT: Job losses hint at vast remaking of US Economy. Collapse – social, environmental, financial. Environment being wrapped up as the gooey center of the larger collapse. All of our systems are under pressure to remove false value and select for intrinsic value.

Design Patterns for Post-Consumerism: weak signals, indicators that suggest possible directions. What could replace consumerism? Two types of patterns: 1) Go back to basics. Not likely. Service economy represents giant heatsinks of human activity. Free time, cognitive potential. Other heatsinks are terrorism and civil unrest. How can we effectively use people’s free time. 2) Progressive future. Eg The Diamond Age; Universal copy machine. Physics & culture at the heart of the problem. Bits don’t move – they are copied. What can’t be copied? What is important? Culture becomes all-encompassing. World breaks out of nation-states into tribes. Culture is defined by what people make. OpenSource as example of removing economics of production. We still make & participate & contribute & collaborate.

Design Pattern 1: FREE. What economic & cultural value can be created outside of capital? What if everything was free? We assume economic trade must be the primary framing of value in our lives. Capitalism is shrinking. It must compressed because a lot of economics is perceived value, not actual value. This encourages alternatives that build real value. Design

Pattern 2: Repair Culture. Old school. When something is built to last, you want to see it last. We need objects that tell us to take care of them. Inverse of culture of obsolescence. The curse of innovation. Always improving products… how to avoid obsolescence? Eg DIY & Maker culture. Now there are customer communities & repair cultures for everything. Emergent business ecosystem that rises from repair communities. Eg Twitter community of teachers, services.

Design Pattern 3: Reputation Scaled. Reputation is the fertile ground from which civilization arises. Keeps us honest. Internet has transformed the village into the global village. This has transformed reputation (nobody can hide). Eg microlending. Collective reputation. Rewired the system to fund people without credit. Lent to groups of people who know each other – individual reputations are tied to group reputation. Innovation from the bottom-up. Eg Tidy Towns. Engage people in rural Irish towns to get passionate about clean cities. Town, community, individual. Tying individual reputation to larger group reputation.

Design Pattern 4: The Loanership Society. Lending stuff we can spare or don’t use. Eg why does everybody have a power drill? Why not share across groups? Eg Eco-neighbuzz. “I need a drill. Can anyone lend me one?” Make it a utility. Eg utility of the Zipcar. Notion of ownership over solid media versus subscription models. Subscription models for everything. Eg Comcast bundles subscriptions. People want a la carte. Hence more people are going to the web for content on their own terms. Pride of ownership vs. pride of stewardship. Eg John Muir. Not “I own this thing”, but “we collectively have a guardianship”. What are the environments where stewardship is more appropriate than ownership?

Design Pattern 5: Virtual Production. Eg device containers that stuff gets made and sold for. Not solid product but digital goods. Breaking cycles of production & consumption. Eg iPhone & apps. Eg. Air Level, iCandle. Se amount of economic activity that involves creating new stuff is being retargeted to virtual goods. Such goods get better over time rather than decaying. Eg Creating micro-economic climates. New metrics.

How can we move the culture towards these trends. Amplify the patterns. We have the opportunity, the tech, and the will. Benefit ourselves and our culture, our futures and our children.

@tempo @monstro


  1. Paul Hughes

    Thanks Chris for sharing all your tweets on ETech and compiling this list of very useful ideas.

    Clearly as long as we continue doing business within a fragile planetary ecosystem, pretty much everything we do needs to change, adapt, ephermalize, regenerate. I just hope that along with these changes, we don’t loose site of the bigger impetus which this all points – which is to continue onward, upward, outward off the planet and become a space faring species.

    This is the first time in our planets evolution such a possibility is upon us. Given what’s at stake (massive ecological, economic and population collapse), it’s now or never that a strong push for space development must be made. Those talking about peak civilization and mandatory de-industrialization are a depressing, anti-evolutionary lot.

    I think when real-world constraints start culling the population, radical evolutionary pressures upward will re-exert themselves. I’ve never known people to go quietly in the night, especially when bigger, better alternatives present themselves.

    My fellow Lifeboat advisor Brian Wang is actively working on some very radical space propulsion designs which could reduce orbital launch costs to less than $1/Kg without the need for any new technological advances.

    When billions of lives are at stake from a lack of biosphere support capacity, space migration is by far the saner choice, especially when many if not most industrial processes can be taken off world. This should give the ecoheads joy as the planet could then go back to being a veritable garden of Eden without devolution or death.

  2. chris arkenberg

    Thanks for your comment, Paul. Certainly things are getting precarious here on the homeworld but I personally have pretty much zero interest in venturing offworld. I really dig the Earth and the thought of living in space is actually quite abysmal to me. Furthermore, propulsion & materials issues aside, I’m not even sure we can effectively grow food in space for long-term, much less anticipate the physiological issues likely to occur when natural light cycles, gravitational orientation, and sense perception get all out of whack. Perhaps you’re just much more intrepid than me… I’ll stay here and wind down the days on my porch with some local hooch, an acoustic, guitar, a shotgun, and the setting sun ablaze on the horizon. :)

  3. Paul Hughes

    Hi Chris,

    Oh you responded… I should have checked back sooner. :)

    Firstly, I never mentioned that I would go. Having not been there myself, I would certainly want to go for the experience, to see the Earth in all it’s majestic beauty amidst the backdrop of the cosmos. Surely such an experience would be eye and mind opener and give me greater perspective on the meaning of life. As to whether I would stay there would depend on the prospects of what lies beyond. Would we have the ability to fully replicate and scale biospheres on colonies of various sizes? Would more rapid space travel allow travel to nearby stars in within a fraction of normal human lifetime? Would life extension be at a point, that human lifespans no longer pose limits? These and many other unanwered questions would need to be addressed before I could make the decision to push further into the cosmos, or live out the remainder of my years comfortably nestled in some hobbiton backwoods of peace and harmony [note: I’m currently living on 40 acres with food garden, the beginnings of an edible forest, loop greenhouses, etc.]

    I too love the Earth as well as the human species, despite our current problems. The prospect of seeing the Earth’s environment experience another severe culling of both biodiversity and human population is something that does not sit well with me. If we have the power to avert it or at least mitigate the worst from happening I believe we should do so. The growing resignation that is currently plaguing the environmental left is getting very tiresome very fast. I have frankly been suprised at the level of defeatism from many so-called intelligent innovators, such as Adam Greenfield and Daniel Pinchbeck. They clearly underestimate both the survival instinct as well as human ingenuity.

    Assuming thinkers such as deep ecologist James Lovelock and techoutopian Kieth Henson are correct, who both predict the biosphere in combination with our current technology can support no more than 1 Billion people, then there would be only two options. One, 80-90% of the human population dies off mostly through intensely violent resouces wars, starvation, disease and genocide. Or two, new design science livingry (i.e sustainable/appropriate technology) in combination with space development (i.e. moving most industry and people off-world) allows everyone to win. The environmentalists get a “new earth” that is free from overpopulation, pollution and nonregenerative resource extraction. Those who wish to continue the evolution of life off-world, in alignment with life’s inexorable drive to spread itself as widely as possible, can continue, survive and thrive onwards.



  4. Paul Hughes

    I forgot one important point.

    The Earth as we both know and cherish it will be unrecognizable within 50 years unless radical advances in either livingry or space development occur. The reason is simple. If desperate people are cornered with death or ripping down the few remaining trees to eat, they will rip down the last tree if necessary. Imagine the the fate of Christmas Island, only global… a seething hot, roasting, desertified post-apocolyptic wasteland. Is this the Earth you want to settle down in with your hooch, guitar and shotgun? Because that is the Earth we’re going to inherit unless we innovate and expand our survival options offworld.

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