Friday, November 25, 2005


I am old enough (barely) to remember when disposable pens first appeared. Before the disposables, the pen was a metal tube that pulled apart in the middle. Inside, there was a narrow metal cylinder with a ball point at one end -- this contained the ink. A tiny coil spring fit over the bottom of the cylinder. When the pen ran out of ink, you pulled it apart, removed the spring from the old cylinder, put it over the base of a new cylinder, and put the thing back together. The only part you threw away was the narrow metal cylinder.

Then came the disposable pen: A clear plastic outer tube, with a clear plastic insert that had the ink and the ball point, and a round plug in the other end that provided amusement and challenge to those who practiced removing it with their teeth. When this pen stopped writing, you simply threw it away and got another. You young 'uns might find this hard to believe, but the disposable pen originally caused quite a stir. To the generation that had grown up during the Depression (not me, my parents), it seemed an extravagant waste to throw the entire thing away. Was no part of it reusable? Remember that these were people who saved the last sliver of soap when each bar was down to the end and, when they had enough of them, pressed them together to make another bar. These were the people who scraped the skins from potatoes rather than peeled them, because less of the potato was wasted that way. These were the people who knew real hardship.

But the answer to their question was, of course, yes. Parts of the disposable pen -- the outer tube and the plug, if it didn't show teeth marks and wasn't curled up around the edge -- were reusable. It's just that it wasn't worth it. And that was the real impact, the real message, of the disposable pen, the reason it caused such an uproar: It said to people, we could reuse... but it isn't worth it. We could save those slivers of soap... but it isn't worth it. We could save, we could reuse... but we don't have to. We can afford to throw things away now. We have come to a point where things can be, simply, disposable.

Alvin Toffler, in his book Future Shock (which I had to read in high school) saw the disposable pen as a sign of a fundamental shift in human society: For an immense part of our history, going back to before even the first dawning of intelligence in primates, our species has known the sweet, sweet joy of owning things, of this is mine, and I have stuff that make me wealthy. Toffler foresaw a future -- I think he called it a "throw away society" or some such (I haven't read the book in a long time) -- in which all property was disposable -- use and throw away -- and so actual physical objects had no value. In Toffler's view (as I remember it) we have created such an enormous capacity to produce, that the products of that production are consequently cheapened.

All this from a disposable pen.

The disposable trend did continue, though not with the breadth and depth that I remember Toffler predicting, and with a mix of successes and failures. Disposable diapers seem to be universally regarded as a huge success, pretty much on a par with the domestication of fire, and a step above the discovery of penicillin. Personally, I have had no experience with diapers since I wore them myself, and my memory on that score is a little fuzzy, but I will go with the consensus.

Failures? Disposable clothes were one of those ideas that made a big splash and are now gone, gone, gone. Remember paper clothes? Wear once and throw away? You don't? You're either too young, or you're not but you blinked. I do have one special memory of paper clothes: I was watching the television show It Takes a Thief (I loved that show!) as a child, and Robert Wagner was talking a gorgeous woman in a bikini next to a crowded public swimming pool. This was a woman from whom he needed important information. He threatened her by noting that she was wearing a paper bathing suit, and what would happen if he pushed her into the pool?

Apparently foreign agents who are voluptuous blondes wearing paper bikinis are motivated more by modesty than loyalty to the homeland, because she gave him the information he needed. But, really, who wears a bathing suit that can't get wet? Do you need to know anything more about why paper clothes didn't make "the cut"?

Anyway, enough about curvaceous women in dissolving bathing suits. We're talking disposability here, people! Minds out of the gutter, now!

Today we are surrounded by disposable products. We have disposable lighters. And I really hate washing storage containers for my leftover food, so I buy them by the carton of thirty for $9.99 and throw them away when I'm done. Sandwich bags are also disposable, though I am sad to say I know people who haven't figured this out yet.

At the high end of the disposable commodity market, we have disposable cameras. Disposable cameras do really seem, to this child of children of the Depression, like a wasteful extravagance... but hey, I'm with the program. In particular, if I expect to take "wet" pictures (and I live and vacation in Florida and the Caribbean, so yes, I do), I buy and use disposable underwater cameras. So there! That's proof that I'm not my parents' child. I am a member of the Culture of the Disposers.

I see this post has wandered on for quite a while. Where am I going with this? I will tell you, poor reader, because you have been so patient:

Today is Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year, and Day of Greatest Extravagant Spending...

...and I have been to a Walgreen's (a chain drug store), and there I saw, in plastic packaging, hanging on the end cap of a display rack, like any cheap electric appliance -- say, a curling iron -- a row of...

...are you ready?...

...disposable video cameras.

I kid you not. For twenty-seven dollars and some change, plus tax, and the challenge of getting it out of that diabolical plastic packaging, you can fleetingly own a video camera the shape of a brick but smaller, that will shoot twenty minutes of video ($1.50/minute). After twenty minutes, you will return it to Walgreen's and essentially throw it away. The friendly Walgreen's employee will reward your wantonness by giving you a DVD containing twenty minutes of your memories.

I don't know if the video camera is entirely thrown away, or if some of the parts are salvaged and reused, but this still struck some note of wrongness, inside me somewhere. Where will it end? Disposable automobiles? Drive it for a day and drop it off at the crusher? Are we slowly headed towards Toffler's vision?

And to think it all started with a disposable pen.

Anyone want to scrape the skins off potatoes with me? Better yet, just leave the skins on. Don't waste anything.



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