Planned obsolescence: what it is and examples
Planned obsolescence. It’s a simple but not too evident concept in which the term “planned” is used to define an object’s lifetime, which should actually be determined by wear and tear, that is, by its use. It is a “quality” that has become inherent to industrial production and that it’s impossible to understand without looking at how things have been produced in over a century. It’s that simple.
In the society before the 1900’s, things and objects couldn’t have a planned obsolescence because they were almost produced in unique pieces, like a craft, and the producer usually had a relationship of trust with the consumer. Partly because of the productive culture of the artisan, partly because of his or her direct relationship with the consumer, and also because the biggest share of the value was represented by the work and not by the raw material, these objects were made to last.
The dawn of planned obsolescence
It’s a logic that has also been followed in the first phase of modern industrialism, in the age of mass production, between the end of the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s. This time saw the spreading of objects within society that we now don’t even notice because of how common they are, such as light bulbs, fridges, zippers, and cars. Industry’s first phase, which could count on quality as a market lever, was characterized by sturdy materials, good manufacture, and optimal designing.
But it didn’t last long. Already in the 1920s, in fact, companies realized that their businesses’ worst competitors were precisely the products that “lasted too long”, in a scenario in which factories were able to produce more and more objects, reducing the quantity of human labour, which is a cost, for every produced thing.
Basically, the fact that people already owned a lasting object was the main obstacle for the sales’ growth. In 1924, the business world found a remedy for this. In that year, in fact, light bulb’s producers created the Phoebus Cartel, which fixed, amongst other things, the standardization of sockets, power and brightness. Most importantly, it fixed the “ideal” lifetime – for the industries and not the consumer – of the light bulbs to 1,000 hours, at a time in which it was already easy to produce 2,500 hours lasting ones.
This was the first documented case of planned obsolescence. It has been proved wrong in the technical sense since a light bulb made to last has been lit since 1901: the “Centennial Light”, situated at the Livermore-Pleasanton fire station in California.
In the following years, it was theorized that planned obsolescence could be a solution to get out of the 1929 crisis, by stimulating the market, while in the same years Dupont forced its researches to weaken nylon, the substance by them invented, because women’s tights made during these years lasted too long and damaged the market.
WWII and the economic boom relegated the problem to a second place, and it has come up again only in the last 30 years. Many products, in fact, have reached market saturation. We all have a fridge, a washing machine, even two cars, two mobile phones for everyone – in Italy this also includes every new-born – and a laptop is a common object. The only real market, then, is that of replacement.
Therefore, objects must break. With the help of computer-aided design and the knowledge of the materials, the objects’ destiny is “planned”. These systems allow to accurately determine the typology, quantity and quality of the material to be used to make an object, planning its end. IT has only made the situation worse.
Some devices that have an internal control system, that is to say a computer, can decide to have run out of components, such as printer cartridges, after a certain number of operations. Moreover, handheld devices have seen the spread of a design that prevents to substitute the battery, which is often the component that becomes more rapidly damaged. In this way a product that maybe, apart from the battery, has no defects, becomes obsolete.
The new psychological obsolescence
Until now we have talked about technological planned obsolescence, but there’s another one, which is maybe even more sneaky. This obsolescence is psychological. The obsolescence is obviously still technological, since the damage still happens to the materials, but it concerns aspects that are only marginal to the functioning of the object, which continues to function. These designs have been deliberately planned for the customer to lose faith in the object.
Cars are classic examples. Non-vital components such as handles, seat covers, headlights, dashboards, and painting systematically break in series after a certain number of miles or years, leading the owner to mistrust the vehicle, so that he/she becomes then well-disposed after a short time to replace a car that, perhaps, is doing well its essential duty: to move.
In order to do so, plastic is used instead of metals. Polymers, that is to say the molecules that form plastic, are in fact largely “sensible” to weather conditions and to sunlight. In this way their use, in adverse conditions, damages them. Since a car works and lives outdoors, early wear and tear – that is to say, planned obsolescence – becomes once again almost taken for granted.
Another aspect related to psychological planned obsolescence is that of the performance of electronic devices. We are often induced to replace TVs, smartphones and laptops, because we keep hearing through advertising about the new, astonishing and perhaps only theoretical performance of the new device.
A case to end all cases is high definition TV – the most recent one after HD is called 4K, but there is already talk of 8K. Technical details aside, in fact, what stands out is that there are many 4K TVs but few broadcasting stations that make use of this technology, in a way that is moreover occasional and experimental.
And I stop writing here, also because if we went on case by case we could write a book, or an E-book. But I can give you an advice about the issue. There’s no rush in replacing your HD TV, sending a working device to the garbage dump, just to have the same result with a 4K TV. It is better to wait for planned obsolescence on the technical front. Both your wallet and the environment will be grateful.
Written by Sergio Ferraris and translated by Liza.