The other day, out of the blue, my printer suddenly stalled, even though it had been working perfectly for once. Strange warning lights started blinking, and they were definitely not the familiar signals indicating a paper jam or the need to install –yet again– fresh ink cartridges. After consulting the manual, it turned out that these blinking lights signalled a necessity for “authorized service”. What for, a routine health check? A quick consultation on the net confirmed the worst: that my printer had reached its pre-programmed obsolescence; all thanks to a chip inside the machine that keeps track the number of documents printed and that, upon reaching an arbitrary number, prevents it from printing any more. A perfect example of a “smart” appliance, without a doubt. Luckily, the internet also contains hackers’ instructions for re-setting the chip to zero so that a perfectly functional printer does not have to be sent directly to that toxic massive electronic landfill site in Ghana where all the world’s obsolete gadgets eventually end up. Thanks to these hackers, it’s possible to out-smart supposed smartness.
The planned obsolescence of my printer got me thinking: could we possibly be living in soon-to-be obsolete cities? What if the price of oil, which is currently artificially low for geo-political reasons, were suddenly to ‘normalize’ and reflect actual supply and demand? Or what if we were to have another repetition of the energy crisis of 1973? It has to be remembered that much of the world’s urbanization is premised entirely upon the availability of cheap energy and the mass-ownership of private automobiles. In the context of growing inequality and a shrinking middle class, a sudden rise in the price of oil could jeopardize a lot of people living in suburbs and exurbs; the kinds of remote, sprawling, low-density areas that are too expensive to service with public transportation.
Already dense urban settlements, in turn, will be faced with another problem: what to do with obsolete highway and parking infrastructure. Barcelona, for example, in its pre-Olympic build-up constructed an expensive beltway, much of which is sunken below ground, as well as large underground garages for storing private automobiles, many of which were inserted beneath historical public squares. At least the beltway can be re-used as a public transportation corridor, but what will we do with Barcelona’s many multi-level underground garages when only a wealthy minority will be able to afford to own and drive a car?
Make no mistake: massive private car ownership will one day become a thing of the past. True, electric cars have come down in price while improving in performance, and will probably continue to do so. But when steadily rising electricity prices are coupled with a middle class that is largely joining the ranks of the poor, these sorts of technological improvements will amount to little. Car-sharing platforms won’t save the suburbs either, as these don’t work very efficiently in low-density single-use environments such as North American suburbs.
At least a printer programmed for obsolescence can be hacked to make it work again. But a city?