Saturday, November 16, 2013

Planned obsolescence doesn't exist

In 1992 my 4th grade public school teacher gave me a religious pamphlet.

It wasn't about Christ, the paper was cheap recycled newsprint and the sermon was about environmentalism and the depravity of capitalism, but it was very much a religious pamphlet. That's not to say that preserving the environment is an unworthy cause, but unexamined faith is required to believe the fable in this comic book-style magazine.

The pamphlet each student in my class received told about a fictional video game console that was hugely popular. Players needed to buy the system and its game cartridges, but the catch was they were designed to break and shut down after three months so parents would have to buy new ones. Which, of course, they did.

"Of course" meaning it's what people did in this flimsy narrative. In the real world they would switch to a competitor.

The strained hook at environmentalism was that these video game systems wasted resources when they were purchased over and over again and thrown away. The muted-color comic told us that real-life corporate executives are so evil that they actually do this and the toys we want so bad are tainted with their greed and must be shunned.

Even as a 10-year-old I knew this was a far-fetched and dishonest story, but sadly many adults fall for similar tales today.

For years I've heard anti-capitalists talk about a conspiracy theory called planned obsolescence, where companies design products to become outdated or useless in a short amount of time to force customers to buy replacements. A recent example is the idea that Apple is purposely using software updates to slow down older iPhone models so people will have to buy new ones.

But as New York Times economics columnist Catherine Rampell recently wrote there are perfectly rational explanations for these things:

Of course, lots of these signs of “planned obsolescence” have alternative and more benign explanations, related to design, efficiency and innovation. Sure, software upgrades may make older phones run more slowly, but that could be a side effect rather than the primary intention; newer software does more sophisticated stuff (3-D maps! Photo filters! AirDrop!) intended to take advantage of the hardware capabilities of the newest phones, and these more sophisticated features happen to be quite taxing on previous-generation hardware.

She went on to say that Apple knows its customers want to upgrade to the new models every few years anyways, so why bother making them more expensive just so they will last forever. Imagine if a 1970's tailor made leisure suits that would stay crisp for all eternity, and charged extra for them.

It's telling that when she spoke to people alleging planned obsolescence, their accusations always came without evidence:

I spoke with a lot of technology experts for the Magazine column, and their interpretations of Apple’s design decisions were all over the map. Some suggested that yes, Apple is deliberately limiting its technology’s lifespan to harvest more sales from its existing user base. Others said no — the brand hit that Apple would take for doing this would be too damaging, and Apple knows it. Since the column was published, I have likewise seen plenty of reader emails and technology blog posts insisting that Apple is either obviously engaging in planned obsolescence or obviously not.

Some of the accusations of planned obsolescence are downright stupid. For example, the ones in the poorly-researched "Story of Stuff" video.

After alleging that DVDs were introduced in 1995 with the intention of replacing them with Blu-ray discs, streaming video and digital downloads, but before she suggests that flat screen monitors were held back from production for several decade so consumers could purchase bulkier versions, narrator Annie Leonard says something so moronic about personal computers that an Amish minister would laugh.

I opened up a big desktop computer to see what was inside and I found out that the piece that changes each year is just a tiny little piece in the corner. But you can't change that one piece because each new version is a different shape so you gotta chuck the whole thing and buy a new one.

No one, absolutely no one, should believe such an outrageous tall tale about mysterious unnamed computer pieces that don't fit and don't have converter cables. She must live in a world where nerds don't build their own desktop computers or use expansion slots. Anyone competent enough to plug in a monitor knows what she's saying is an inexcusable lie. She flat-out made that up.

Her follow-up line "So I was reading industrial design journals from the 1950's" should be accompanied by a rimshot. No she wasn't. According to Lee Doren, those journals she claims were talking about making products break were really talking about weighing the cost of the expensive indestructible leisure suit from paragraph 10.

The most important thing to remember when considering planned obsolesce is Bertrand Russell's cosmic teapot analogy, where anyone can claim a China teapot is caught in orbit around the planet Mars and dare others to prove them wrong. The burden of proof lies on the claim-maker, otherwise buffoons can invent fanciful stories and proclaim them true until another person can muster the evidence the disprove it.

Planned obsolescence is a legend, and a far-fetched one at that. It is up to the claim-makers to present their evidence, and after decades of spinning stories they have failed to do so.


  1. Come on now, you as much as confirmed the concept with your Apple example. Though, it's not so much planned obsolescence as it is an understanding of how fast technology progresses and how often users upgrade or whatever.

    In any event, almost everything is designed with a certain lifespan in mind, but yeah, there is no conspiracy to have things wear out to make more money, it's based on consumer demand.


  3. Deidra, that list you linked was hastily thrown together. Some are mere accusations of planned obsolescence while others, like ink cartridges, are non-universal forms. Do you defend the idea the the NES was dreamed up with the SNES in mind all the while? Light bulbs, for example, don't last as long so they can cheap. As the Lee Doren link shows, that's called weighing the costs.

  4. You can't be serious?
    Planned obsolescence is a fact.
    If a product is poorly designed and constructed it will fail after a given amount of use. It may be cost cutting but it is still planned obsolescence because manufacturers are testing products before mass producing.
    I have seen it time and time again across all consumer products.
    From white goods to cars to electronics and usually repairing these things properly is next to impossible and often you are undermined by the next weakest link in the design.
    Televisions are built using chips that fail and can on be sourced from the manufacture. Usually at a cost more than replacing the whole TV.
    I look at every consumer product as landfill sitting on the shelves.
    I am sure if a big name brand manufactured anvils they would have them crumbling within five years.

  5. The processors each generation get more pins, lower voltages to minimize heat and a few new instructions. You can upgrade to a processor in the same family, which I used to do. But even server grade hardware fails after 5 years. Flatscreens were available years ago, but at 5 digit prices most people didn't buy them, except show-offs at trade shows.