Consider the Peanut Butter Jar

In an age when product containers can easily and almost costlessly be shaped at the whim of their issuers, why does peanut butter continue to come in tall jars rather than squat tubs?

A corporate PR department would surely assert that it’s because that’s what people are used to and expect.

That, of course, is 99% horse feathers.

The real reason is salable waste, aka planned osolescence.

Tall, narrow containers make it needlessly difficult to use all the sticky, amorphous gels residing in them. This structural difficulty, in turn, leads to a small but meaningful amount of the peanut butter being throw away, rather than used. It means, on average, people buy the next jar of peanut butter a day earlier than they would if the stuff came in a short, wide tub that permitted easy access to the last portions.

If you have been around big-brand peanut butter lately, you’ll know that this point stands double. Nationally advertised peanut butter jars are not just tall cylinders, but, within that form, are fairly riddled with flanges and recesses that heighten the difficulty of using the last spoonfuls. Why?

Again, there’s only one plausible answer — the obvious one: Corporate capitalist product planners want us to throw away some of what they know we want and need.

Interestingly, this very example was apparently central to the career of Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who first publicly enunciated/acknowledged the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Here is how Stevens, near the end of his life, explained his early entry into a field in which he eventually became a superstar:

Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches inspired one of Brooks Stevens’s simplest and most ubiquitous designs.

“I loved peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches,” Mr. Stevens says. But the jars the peanut butter came in were tall with small caps. “I could never get the peanut butter out of the shoulders of the jar.”

“So I squared up the jar,” he recalls. “And then I made the opening the full diameter of the width of the jar, so that it was a big circle and had a big cap. Then you could get it all out of there.”

The obvious question for Stevens was why he stopped there. Why not go from jar to tub?

The answer was inherent in the job description of the modern corporate capitalist product engineer:

[The industrial designer] has to be a salesman, an engineer, a manufacturer — in the sense of knowledgeable about process and materials — and an artist, and in that order.

-Brooks Stevens to The Chroncile of Higher Education, September 16, 1992

It bears repeating, and remembering: Salesman, then engineer…in that order.

Junk Sociology from MIT

image of junk on conveyor belt

Dangerously lazy thinking pervades what passes for green politics. Consider the stunning fact that activists leaping straight from worry for their children to “doing something” are about to kill off Portland, Oregon’s lone glass recycling facility, thereby ensuring that whatever glass continues to get used there will be trucked or railroaded to far-off plants. All because the leaders in involved can’t be troubled to think beyond their first reactions.

As TCT readers will know, we here have long tried to convince people that one important taproot of such pratfalling is the continuing replication of stories about “consumerism” and “consumer culture.”

A recent major interation of this awful trope comes courtesy of no less august an entity than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In “A Brief History of Consumer Culture,” Kerryn Higgs advances the hypothesis that “[o]ver the course of the 20th century, capitalism preserved its momentum by molding the ordinary person into a consumer with an unquenchable thirst for more stuff.”

There are many things to be said about the dense skein of errors in this little essay.

One point, however, seems most important: Higgs provides no empirical evidence to substantiate her interpretation.

Are ordinary people heedless greed monsters? That’s a rather gigantic claim. Higgs says it is true, and expects us to agree. But she provides not an iota of support for the assertion. No pertinent data of any kind.

And what of capitalism, the force Higgs says unleashed our inner greed monster. How did/does that happen? Higgs refers to various tertiary speculations, yet fails to a single word about the multi-trillion-dollar-a-year branch of big business behavior-management known as “marketing.” Literally, she doesn’t so much as mention it.

This, in a book from MIT, printed in the year 2016.

The upshot of the whole familiar mess is, as always, the rather conventional message that, marketing and corporate power notwithstanding, we have met the enemy is it is us, all of us, co-equally.

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Fusion and Fission

The next phase of the “electric vehicles” haloware operation is apparently going to lead to a big build-out of charging stations.

Unsurprisingly, the stations are being planned as nodes for further communicating to “shoppers at retail and essential business locations– seconds before they select a brand.” As interfaces for big business marketing operations (including advertising and data scraping), that is.

The image above, from one of the aspiring installers, is fascinating at several levels. Where, for starters, are the actual automobiles? There’s one way across the scene, curiously NOT being charged.

More fundamentally, this depiction shows a society whose cultural planners have no intention of offering up anything but more of the same, come Hell and/or high water.

Shop til you drop, babies!

Frederick Douglass in Your Kitchen

“Power concedes nothing.” So observed Frederick Douglass in an 1857 speech, 30 years before Lord Acton’s famous riff on the point.

The point applies at all levels of applied power, too.

Very probably, we presently live in the early stages of a world-historic ecological crisis requiring a collective acknowledgement that the teenage fantasy of endless wealth accumulation can’t work. I order to save civilization, we will have to make huge changes in our main institutional priorities. The way we design and make products will have to be very seriously altered.

Soon. Like yesterday.

Meanwhile, despite this, per Douglass, power concedes nothing:

Behold Lasso, the (supposedly) forthcoming kitchen appliance for sorting and packaging your recycling!

Here is how Engadget describes this dishwasher-sized machine’s ideal operation:

The still-in-development Lasso will have a vertical slot or tray for depositing items. A series of cameras and sensors will then analyse the packaging and decide if it’s recyclable. No good? Then the object will be returned to you, rather like a vending machine spitting out change. Otherwise, the material will be steam-cleaned to remove leftover food, grease, dirt and labels. Finally, it will be ground down and placed in a dedicated compartment at the bottom of the Lasso. When one or all of these boxes are full, you’ll use a smartphone app to organize a kerbside collection. A driver can then pick it up…

Yes, nothing could possibly break in that chain, could it?

Meanwhile, the entire scam here presumes continuing purchaser ignorance about the severe limitations of recycling.

As social order that permits its runaway elite to continue to pursue endless commercialism and commodification is not long for this planet. Yet, here we see it — redoubling, as always.

Power, remember, concedes nothing.

Holy Truths

Since the United States remains corporate capitalism’s flagship and proving ground, the forms of publicly-subsidized waste that sustain it have long been sacrosanct in American culture. When it comes to discussing these vital flows in public, rational questions are forbidden, and cover stories consist of the wildest fictions.

Consider what The New York Times says about today’s Congressional over-ride of a Presidential veto of the Pentagon’s new $740,000,000,000 budget:

The vote reflected the sweeping popularity of a measure that authorizes a pay raise for the nation’s military.

NYT, January 1, 2021

It would be very hard to cram more untruth into fewer words.

Is there, in fact, “sweeping” support for increased military spending? There certainly is among Congresspersons. But there absolutely is not such a sentiment among the population, as the slightest fact-check shows:

It is also difficult to decide which is more petulant and hateful: The appeal to raising soldiers’ compensation, or the use of the phrase “pay raise for the nation’s military” to denote this topic.

This is the kind of thing that makes it rather hard to get much worked up when this supposedly canonical source carps about other entities’ disdain for basic facts and logic. On topics where power requires it, prevarication here is just as brazen as it is in certain Floridian brothels and country clubs.

Facebook’s One True Fear

According to The Washington Post, as a move in its defense against now-pending anti-trust litigation, Facebook has recently done this:

In an attempt to illustrate its commitment to competition, the company’s top lawyers signaled that they would be open to changing some of its business practices, according to three people familiar with the matter. One of the ideas Facebook floated would have allowed another firm or developer to license access to its powerful code — and its users’ intricate web of relationships — so that they could more easily create their own version of a social network, said the individuals, who spoke on the condition of anonymity

The Washington Post, December 22, 2020

The Post, of course, never for a second considers what this action ultimately discloses. Yes, Facebook dislikes being sued for excessive market power, as this report has it. But what Facebook really fears is the utterly obvious thing that would actually kill it: a public, not-for-profit version of itself.

As this Post report confirms, Facebook will be quite happy to have its would-be competitors arise from the private sector. That’s because the private sector will never dare do the things the public-sector would do as a matter of course — and hence will never do more than slightly dent Facebook’s artificial dominance.

Only if and when the public modernizes the United States Postal Service and includes in that effort a non-commercial, reliably private forum for quick interpersonal internet communication will Facebook’s empire face its true comeuppance.

Alas, in our almost completely corporate media ecology, this simple prospect — despite surely being an object of serious worry inside the Facebook boardroom — remains unmentioned and unmentionable.