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Planned Obsolescence

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Planned Obsolescence

Post Neon Knight on Sat 2 Sep - 19:06


Lightbulbs and various other technologies could easily last for decades, many believe, but it’s more profitable to introduce artificial lifespans so that companies get repeat sales. “That’s sort of the conspiracy theory of planned obsolescence,” says Mohanbir Sawhney, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University.

So is this conspiracy theory true? Does planned obsolescence really exist?

The answer: yes, but with caveats. Beyond the crude caricature of greedy companies wantonly fleecing their customers, the practice does have silver linings. To an extent, planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of sustainable businesses giving people goods they desire. In this way, planned obsolescence serves as a reflection of a ravenous, consumer culture which industries did create for their benefit, yet were hardly alone in doing so.

“Fundamentally, firms are reacting to the tastes of the consumers,” says Judith Chevalier, a professor of finance and economics at Yale University. “I think there are some avenues where [businesses] are kind of tricking the consumer, but I think there are also situations where I might put the fault on the consumer.”

Although the term “planned obsolescence” didn’t enter common usage until the 1950s, the strategy had by then permeated consumerist societies.

In various forms, from subtle to unsubtle, planned obsolescence still very much exists nowadays. From so-called contrived durability, where brittle parts give out, to having repairs cost more than replacement products, to aesthetic upgrades that frame older product versions as less stylish – goods makers have no shortage of ruses to keep opening customers’ wallets.

For a fully modern example, consider smartphones. These handsets often get discarded after a mere couple years’ use. Screens or buttons break, batteries die, or their operating systems, apps, and so on can suddenly no longer be upgraded. Yet a solution is always near at hand: brand new handset models, pumped out every year or so, and touted as “the best ever”.

As another example of seemingly blatant planned obsolescence, Giles Slade (author of the book Made to Break) mentions printer cartridges. Microchips, light sensors or batteries can disable a cartridge well before all its ink is actually used up, forcing owners to go buy entirely new, not-at-all-cheap units. “There’s no real reason for that,” says Slade. “I don’t know why you can’t just go get a bottle of cyan or black [ink] and, you know, squirt it into a reservoir.”

Though some of these examples of planned obsolescence are egregious, it’s overly simplistic to condemn the practice as wrong. On a macroeconomic scale, the rapid turnover of goods powers growth and creates reams of jobs – just think of the money people earn by manufacturing and selling, for instance, millions of smartphone cases. Furthermore, the continuous introduction of new widgets to earn (or re-earn) new and old customers’ dough alike will tend to promote innovation and improve the quality of products.

“There’s no doubt about it,” says Slade, “more people have had a better quality of life as a result of our consumer model than at any other time in history. Unfortunately, it’s also responsible for global warming and toxic waste.”


Between the velvet lies, there's a truth that's hard as steel
The vision never dies, life's a never ending wheel
- R.J.Dio
Neon Knight
The Castellan

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