Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Disposable Blog Post

According to, the first recorded use of the word "disposable" (in the sense we now use the word) was in 1943.  I find this fascinating, given that our economy today is largely built around the consumption of disposable products (and consumers' "disposable income," a term that first appeared in 1948).  Even products that aren't designed for immediate discard after use are often designed with planned obsolescence.  Prior to World War II, people certainly understood the concept of discarding waste, but the lack of a word for products that were designed for dumping signals to me that we've undergone a rather large paradigm shift (and most of us don't even realize it).

While I'm sure someone could (and has) written a book about what it means psychologically, environmentally, economically, and politically that we no longer expect manufactured products to last, I'm particularly interested in how the mentality of disposability extends beyond manufactured products.  For instance, I'd be curious to see a study of how the length of human relationships have mirrored or not mirrored our consumption patterns.  Were people of the late 20th century more likely than people of past generations to discard friendships after they had reached a utility threshold?  Are rising divorce rates in any way connected to the appearance of the word "disposable"?  Also, in a culture of "disposability," do we undervalue our use of time?  Are we more likely to waste time, viewing it (wrongly) as just another disposable commodity?

And what of the entertainment industry?  With the proliferation of mass media, and now with the diminishment of actual physical product, most entertainment that is produced is nothing if not planned obsolescence.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how made-for-TV movies are indicative of this phenomenon.  The TV networks would be in big trouble if everyone recorded a particular television movie and chose to watch it every week instead of tuning in for new offerings.  Likewise, big time Hollywood studios would go bankrupt in a hurry if everyone decided that enough movies have already been made to last us for the rest of our lives (though this is technically true).  No film, book, TV show, magazine article, blog post, or music recording can ever fully satisfy us.  The system won't let it.

And yet--at the same time that entertainment networks and productions discourage us from too much personal involvement with them, they are also by nature designed to engage us on such a level as to transport us from our lives into their worlds.  We are supposed to identify with characters, we are supposed to emotionally invest, we are supposed to spend money, and then we are supposed to leave it behind.  From this tension then, it is apparent that the consumption patterns of entertainment would eventually morph beyond the neat, linear model that the producers intend.  I remember reading an interview given by a Marvel comics editor upon the release a few years back of a collected edition of 1970s Spider-Man comics.  He noted that the original creators of those tales would have been dumbfounded that they would exist in any format decades later.  They were churning out monthly stories with the assumption that they would be read once and thrown away.  But an entirely fan-driven comic book marketplace has emerged, wherein the stories are deemed by those who consume them to have more long-term value than the producers ever intended.

And I think this is instructive for our consumption of narratives or popular art produced in any medium.  The assignation of value and of dispensability is not a top-down, one-way street.  We have now internalized the concept of disposability, but that doesn't mean we need to apply it indiscriminately.  We may feel social pressure to discard, but ultimately, we always have the ability to choose whether to dispose of something-- or not.


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