Published On: April 13, 2012

Planned Obsolescence

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By Raul Hiromu Sumiya

Planned obsolescence is a controversial subject. Some people are in favour of this practice, while others are against the idea of forcing something to become obsolete on purpose, just for the sake of stimulating consumption.

As we live in a capitalist world (with the exception of North Korea and Cuba), planned obsolescence makes good business sense. Capitalism is fueled by consumerism, which is based on the creation of services or goods for profit. The more people consume, the more companies have to produce, employing more people, giving employees a source of income to consume and power the economy, and so on.

The term “planned obsolescence” first appeared in a pamphlet written by Bernard London in 1932 called “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”. The phrase was popularized twenty years later by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, when he used the term as the title of a talk he was giving at a conference on advertising in Minneapolis. Stevens saw planned obsolescence as, “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” While Stevens viewed the concept as one of the negative effects of advertising, London saw it in a positive light, as a necessary stimulant to the Depression-era American economy.

There is a conspiracy theory known as “The Light Bulb Conspiracy”, which claims that back in the 1920’s, the Phoebus Cartel (a loose organization of the biggest light bulb producers in the world) allegedly forced the light bulb manufacturers to develop bulbs that couldn’t last over 1,000 hours. Although light bulbs at that time would last up to 2,500 hours, this forced consumers to purchase new bulbs sooner and stimulated production.

Obviously no industry will admit that planned obsolescence is part of its business. In technology, where I work, many compatibility issues arise between old and new products, and many products become obsolete very quickly. In this sense, I understand the necessity of planned obsolescence.

On the other hand, if you are over 30 years old, you’ve no doubt noticed that kitchen appliances, such as blenders and refrigerators, don’t last as long as the same appliances our mothers or grandmothers once used, (or still do!). It’s easy to wonder, therefore, that if technology has improved in the last decades, why can’t the appliance industry produce more durable goods? Is the industry not capable of developing technology to make things last longer?

In the excellent documentary film, “Planned Obsolescence Conspiracy”, which can be viewed on YouTube, the filmmakers enumerate actual cases of planned obsolescence, which forced consumers to buy new products. The old products simply stopped working for no apparent reason. For example, according to the documentary, some computer printers were programmed when they were built to print only a fixed maximum of pages. Once they reached this number, the printers would display an error code. Consulting the printer’s manual or the manufacturer’s website would send users to maintenance shops, where repair technicians would suggest purchasing a new printer, as the cost for fixing the old printer was too high.

Another example from the highly critical documentary detailed a portable music device whose battery had a fixed lifetime. Moreover, the battery was irreplaceable, thus forcing users to purchase a new device, even though it was in perfect condition. In both instances, it would appear the consumer industry went too far with planned obsolescence in the exploitation of its customers. There is no question that many people are satisfied with the products they own and don’t require new models. However, with no other option, they were forced to purchase new products.

Besides consumer frustration, another huge problem is the increase of e-waste. This is the dark side of planned obsolescence, and the world is a long way from solving its current waste management issues.

On the positive side, imagine a world where everything you purchase lasts forever. Would the economy grow in this scenario? Of course this is a simplistic idea, and I’m not considering the development of new technologies, new functionalities or improvements. Thus, there are still good reasons sometimes for consumers to buy new products, even if the old ones are still functioning.

In conclusion, planned obsolescence is a complex issue, with both positive and negative consequences. E-waste and consumer fraud are big problems, but on the other hand, frequent purchasing ensures millions of jobs and even creates new ones, possibly yours, and certainly mine.

Raul Hiromu Sumiya graduated in Computer Science and works as a Business Analyst. He may be contacted at: raul.sumiya@gmail.com

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  1. Biagio says:

    Will Apple take a market fall? yes. itvsenors are fickle, and Apple sometimes has it’s head up it’s ass. All of the big itvsenors I know say they will short it or sell it off.However, this isn’t the old days of the early 90 s where under Sculley they tried to compete with Microsoft and flooded the market with a confusing number of models of the same product. Dell, Gateway and a plethora of others rose up and ate their lunch.When Steve Jobs returned, he picked his pet projects and slimmed down product lines. With the exception of the Cube which IMHO was a design triumph but a commercial failure they haven’t see a lot of FAIL. Apple is currently the design and customer satisfaction leader, their hardware has the lowest rate of failure in the industry. The have a rabid core of fanboys and diehard customers for life who lovingly stroke their Newtons before heading off to dreams of iPad v2.The commercials and marketing don’t always work, they are smug, their products are still overpriced and yet They OWN the ecosystem for music. There is nothing close to iTunes as a hub for multiple forms of entertainment. If they buy or compete with Spotify in the U.S. then they will own the model for the next generation as well.Their competitive advantage (beyond design) is that they make great software AND the hardware it runs on. iTunes, iMove and iPhoto currently put their competition to shame and they are basically free.With the introduction of the unified iOS on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad they now own a much larger chunk of the mobile world than they ever set out to, and they did it on a single carrier in the U.S. Fewer partners = less drama, fewer problems, fewer long term support costs.Yes, Android will rule them all just like Windows did. More carriers = more phones = more problems. Apple really only needs to control about 20% of the global market to do really, really well. If iBooks and the newspaper and magazine distribution thing take off, they might own that too.Oh, and the Apple TV thing that people laughed at when Google TV came out? It looks like Apple may have the last laugh on that one too.I’m not buying their stock, but I am buying their products and so will your grandkids.I think their biggest problem is going to be finding someone as charismatic as Jobs to please the stockholders.

  2. […] Even simple light bulbs fail sooner than technology could allow for. Light bulbs lasted 2,500 hours in the 1920′s. The Phoebus light bulb cartel forced manufacturers to reduce that time to 1,000 hours to simulate production. It was a big conspiracy theory known as “The Light Bulb Conspiracy“. […]

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