For those interested in a sustainable future

Planned obsolescence and everyday life by Justin Lewis
Planned obsolescence and everyday life

Posted by: Professor Justin Lewis

Two contrasting news items have recently caught my eye. The first was notice of a new law in France obliging manufacturers to state the expected lifespan of their products – a first strike against the rampaging built-in obsolescence that characterises contemporary life.

The second was the release of Samsung’s new phone, which will, unlike its forerunners, be hermetically sealed. This ‘upgrade’ brings them in line with their competitors, meaning you will no longer be able to change the battery or upgrade storage. Consumers will now struggle to buy a phone that will last longer than its battery life.

The design of a phone used to be emblematic of whole decade – today the average life of a phone is 12-18 months. The same temporality applies to most of the devices we buy – the cycle of replacement for TVs, laptops, iPads, gaming consoles or any other digital device has become bewilderingly brief. The idea that something should be built to last is, it seems, so last century.

So, for example, Apple introduced a custom built, 5 point ‘pentalob’ screw, whose purpose was to make it impossible for you to open an iPhone (interestingly, Apple uses normal screws inside its phones). Microsoft created new software designed to prevent older versions from reading the new formats. A design flaw, perhaps? No, a deliberate ploy to force you to upgrade.

There is, of course, nothing new about this. Back in the late 1980s, the music industry forced consumers to abandon vinyl by releasing new music only on CD. For integrated companies like Sony, this was a very profitable transition – you could sell people new devices to play music and then, in time, resell music when people switched to the new format. Was it progress? Not really – two decades on in 2011 an executive at Warner Music declared that “vinyl will definitely outlast CDs because of the resonance, the sound”, and sure enough, sales of vinyl have since increased while CD sales plummet. What mattered was not that things changed for the better, simply that they changed.

The digital revolution has, since then, speeded up the production cycle. It has brought with it significant improvements – notably in computer power and capacity – and most of us can remember upgrades that were genuinely better than what came before. But these improvements are usually accompanied by mediocrity and flimsiness – the quality of sound on most gadgets, for example, is no better than it was forty years ago. As the gurus of planned obsolescence know all too well, perfection can only be sold once.

There is nothing about inevitable about this. It would not be difficult to create new software that could be understood by its predecessor, or more durable objects that could be repaired or upgraded. Beneath their sleek exteriors, digital devices could be a smorgasbord of moveable components. This might be good for consumers but it is unquestionably bad for business.

The environmental consequences of this hyper-production cycle are damaging at every stage. The average PC and monitor requires the same volume of resources to build as an SUV vehicle, and the toxicity of the production processes mean that some of the most hazardous waste sites in the US lie beneath the fashionable surface of Silicon Valley. Once built, new gadgets tend to be more power hungry than those they replace, blazing brightly but briefly before being dumped on rapidly growing mountains of toxic e-waste.

This profligacy may be profitable but it doesn’t come cheap. The rising cost of municipal waste is, according to the World Bank, an increasing burden on the public purse, hovering up tax revenues that might otherwise be spent on health, education or public transport. We are, in effect, subsidising planned obsolescence.

The French law may be a step towards a more sustainable future, but it is pitched not just against mischievous manufacturers but an entire culture. Global producers have become ever more adept at persuading us that unless we are dumping and replacing things at an ever increasing rate we will be left behind.

The media and telecommunications industries, with their PR acumen and creative flair, lead the way in this consumerist vision, one where durability means standing still while disposability is the basis of moving forward. They have thereby elevated planned obsolescence from a business model to a philosophy.

The very notion of human progress – almost without our noticing – has been redefined, associated with flimsiness and the ever-decreasing life-span of gadgets. We don’t stop to ask whether these gadgets make us smarter or improve the quality of life. We’re too busy keeping up.