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Jewish World Review August 7, 2002 / 29 Menachem-Av, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

Working to make your valuables utterly worthless | ENGLEWOOD, Colo. You know that guy?

You know -- that guy.

Worked on your floor at the office. Pretty nondescript -- pleasant fellow, smiled a lot, didn't make a lot of waves. Bosses seemed to like him.

He just sort of went away one Friday. He was there on a Friday afternoon, and gone from your department by Monday morning. But he hadn't been fired, and he hadn't quit. You heard he had "gone upstairs" to "work on some special projects." Every three or four months you might run into him briefly in the lobby -- still smiling, still waving a friendly hello, looking a little older. He's still with the company -- you just don't see him much.

You know the guy.

No matter where in the country you work, you know him.

I think I've finally figured out who he is.

The other day, I went into a bookstore to buy a videotape of a movie (that's what they sell in bookstores these days -- movies and coffee, with the occasional muffin), and it took me about 30 seconds to realize something was amiss.

"Uh, where's the tapes?" I inquired.

"Don't carry them anymore," the salesperson said. "The whole chain has switched over to DVDs only."

Apparently this is an industrywide development -- Americans, after decades of being trained like puppies to fetch videotapes of movies and push them into VCRs, are being informed that the tapes (and eventually the VCRs) are obsolete. DVDs and DVD players are the designated replacements. For now.

I say "for now" because of that guy in your office -- the one who was sent upstairs to work on those special projects.

You may be thinking that DVDs are taking over because of their technological superiority. Nope. The DVDs are taking over because of that guy who was sent upstairs.

The guy who was sent upstairs represents the most nefarious aspect of American business. He represents something more ominous than the executives who ran Enron and WorldCom, more chilling than the accountants who reinvented math and thus sank the stock market.

The guy who was summoned upstairs was sent to the office that every major company has -- the office no one ever talks about. This is the office devoted to making current products outmoded and useless even as they are being heavily marketed to customers.

You don't think it's true? You don't think the big corporations have entire divisions that are working at cross-purposes with the departments that manufacture and sell the company's current products to us? We live in an era in which raw materials exist that, theoretically, could make any product last forever -- an era in which brilliant engineers are capable of creating devices that will work wonderfully until the end of time.

But if they were allowed to do that, the companies would go out of business. If you build something too efficiently, and market it too well, the money will stop coming in. The customers will be so satisfied that they will have no need to come back.

Thus, the guy upstairs. He and his colleagues in that secret department are working just as hard as you, but with a crucial difference. You are putting out today's product, foolishly assuming this is the business your company is in. While your company is really in the business of figuring out ways to tell the customers in a few years: You're going to have to throw away what we sold you before.

"Research and development"? That's a nice way to put it, but it's a euphemism. "Planned obsolescence?" That comes closer -- it's what the auto manufacturers have been doing for a century: building their cars knowing that the cars will be made to feel obsolete within a few years.

The VCR-to-DVD is just one example. The people who manufacture video games have perfected this -- even as one generation of vacant-eyed young men stare at a screen, new machines are being invented so that those young men, and the next generation, will feel they have to purchase new control boxes if they want any fun in their lives. Cameras, toasters . . . look at the music business. Music is music -- yet the Beach Boys alone have become millionaires many times over because of the guys upstairs in the secret room. From vinyl 45s to the first generation of LPs, on to eight-track tapes and then to cassettes, from CDs to those tiny new computer-fed music players to whatever the boys upstairs are cooking up right now, the Beach Boys have been able to sell "Surfer Girl" and "409" hundreds of different ways, because the guys upstairs keep making the old music-playing machines yesterday's news and today's garbage.

It's the engine that drives American business -- the engine run by all the smiling guys who used to work on your floor. They're up there right now, behind triple locks, making sure that whatever it is you're toiling away at manufacturing for the company, it will become useless within three or four years. They have the safest jobs in the building -- the only jobs that will never go out of style.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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