Talking about conspiracies these days is a dangerous business. Not because the NSA is listening (which they surely are) and not because the CIA or FBI won’t swoop in, bag you, tag you, and send you off to Guantanamo (which they certainly might). No—talking about conspiracies and questioning the mainstream narrative is dangerous these days because if you do it in the wrong company you’ll be dismissed as a quack; you’ll be socially ridiculed, lambasted for ludicracy, abandoned by your friends and family and eventually end up drunk, stoned and frantically sorting mail in the basement of Rooster Magazine. 

Anyway, the point is: despite being very real and omnipresent, conspiracies are inexplicably taboo right now. Our nation’s history—and dare I say the history of civilization itself—has been guided by them, defined by treachery, betrayal, plotting, scheming and machination. Conspiracies affect you and me every single day and they aren’t always politically charged in one direction or the other. And to prove the point, we’re diving into one of the most pervasive, long-lived conspiracies in modern history. 

The conspiracy of the light bulb. 

A bright idea

Incandescent light bulbs produced between 1910-1920 were probably the best ever made. They had an average lifespan of about 2,000 hours (some lasting closer to 3,000 hours) of continuous illumination. Today, incandescent bulbs last between 750-2,000 hours max. So WTF happened? 

The Phoebus Cartel happened. Around Christmas of 1924 some of the biggest electrical companies in the world came together to meet in Geneva, Switzerland (where these shadowy groups always meet) in total secrecy. The point of this meeting? You guessed it: a grand conspiracy of the juiciest degree. Named after the Greek god of light, the Phoebus Cartel was sick and tired of losing money to their own quality products. Their engineers had been working tirelessly extending the lifespan of light bulbs and they’d done their jobs too well. Now the mustache twirling, cigar smoking, monocle wearing company heads were developing a plan to remedy that conundrum. 

Their solution was simple and they all agreed to it: they’d reverse the trend, cap the lifespan of light bulbs at 1,000 hours and leave consumers no choice but to keep coming back for more. Any company caught making bulbs that actually lasted, would be heavily fined for the trespass. After all, if they all acted together, they had consumers by the balls. 

It worked. Light bulb sales increased by 24% over the next four years. 

Not surprisingly, the general public never caught on. Everyone thought the Cartel was created with the customer's best interest in mind—to streamline efficiency and create standardization between bulb brands. Few (if any) realized the Phoebus was wringing them out like dish rags and slurping up all their earnings. 

The tactic would become known as “Planned Obsolescence.” And it is alive and well today. 

Residual flashes 

The Phoebus Cartel was supposed to dissolve in 1955, but WWII threw a wrench in those plans. By the 1930’s it was falling apart as members abandoned ship and outside competition cropped up. 

But the damage was already done. Planned obsolescence had been born. Companies all around the world adopted it and are still employing it to keep reeling you in for more. Apple, for instance, has been sued multiple times for designing batteries that die early and are irreplaceable. They’ve also been sued for programming phones to load apps slower as they age. Printers are often designed with ink cartridges that cannot be refilled, or can only be refilled with certain ink or by certain retailers. Textbooks get annually modified just slightly, requiring schools to update them wholesale. 

But what about all the jobs planned obsolescence creates? If products lasted forever, no company could ever make a profit; they’d all fold, forcing people into unemployment, and the economy could collapse as a result. Planned obsolescence is an essential mechanism of capitalism! 

It’s a fair point. And it’s probably why there are no laws prohibiting the practice. However, laws against planned obsolescence aren’t necessary. People have been so conditioned by this that now, new things—the latest and greatest, what’s hot off the press—are valuable just because they’re new. It’s why fashion changes every year. It’s why Apple releases new iPhone models, colors, shapes and sizes every September. It’s why car manufacturers do the same thing. And consumers everywhere are eating it up, handing over their cash in return.  

It’s manipulative. And yes, I get it, it’s capitalism. But it’s also a conspiracy, a real life plot by corporate elites who gathered in secrecy almost a century ago, that’s still affecting each and every one of us in our day-to-day lives.