Is my vacuum cleaner actually broken or just my attitude to maintenance? Giuseppe Salvia

giuseppe seminarGiuseppe who works for the UK INDEMAND Centre at Nottingham gave a really excellent talk about vacuum cleaners. More accurately, he gave a talk about how intersecting commercial pressures act together to reduce product life, generate obsolescence, and configure human-material interactions that are prone to breaking down. We learned that the average lifespan of a vacuum cleaner has dropped from 10 years to five or less over the last three decades. Whereas the motor remains relatively durable, ‘breakdowns’ often arise because other parts – bags, filters – are not replaced on time. Many apparently ‘broken’ and discarded cleaners are can be easily repaired. So what is going wrong? A simple explanation is that ‘users’ don’t follow the instructions: but there are other tendencies at play. One is the increasingly prevalent idea that this is a disposable appliance – others relate to the fact that the costs of repair are generally too high to consider (more than 30% of the cost of a new appliance); that vacuum cleaners are symbolically ‘broken’ when they become scratched or dirty, and that interpretations and measures of quality don’t yet include durability. These ideas hint at a mythical image or conceptual model of a magic device that is self maintaining – and in relation to which all actual vacuum cleaners fail. In exploring these themes, Giuseppe opened up a host of much broader questions about the dynamics of consumption; material ‘scripting’; and issues of delegation (from person to human and then to vacuum cleaner). As he made obvious, simply focusing on ‘users’ runs the risk of sweeping these more fundamental topics under the carpet.

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