Consumer Poison: Planned Obsolescence

While companies are spending billions of advertising dollars to convince you that their brand is cool, trustworthy, and reliable… behind consumers’ backs they are also paying their engineers to create products that will break down sooner than necessary. That’s so you’ll buy another one, and if they’ve caught you with their advertising, you’ll buy it from them. This is part of what I learned from an amazingly interesting and witty video at:

We all kow that “they don’t make ’em like they used to”, and on some level I’ve been aware of this technique for many years. But somehow finding out that it has a name, and doing some research on it, has made it all the more real, and depressing. Planned obsolescence (Wikipedia definition) has been around for decades. There’s even an entire engineering field of study around making things crappier, and many engineers aren’t too happy about it. But, it was seen as the saving grace for our economy, and there’s always someone willing to do the job. (Origins of and reactions to planned obsolescence)

The concept stems from the society that believes that consuming is it’s main purpose. How depressing to think that buying more and more junk is our ultimate mission in life. Economic growth, it is thought must always continue to increase, we are never allowed to reach a point where enough is enough and we can just sit back and enjoy it. No! Go out and shop! Work longer hours so you can buy even more. How sad.

My CD player stereo is one that I’ve had since I was 15 or so. It plays up to 5 CDs, two cassettes, am/fm radio and has an audio-in jack where I have connected my DVD payer for big stereo sound. I can even connect the bare speaker wires to the back to swap in any set of speakers I want (no proprietary connectors here). I love it. It’s great. It has lasted for over 12 years, and out lived several ‘modern’ stereos belonging to my siblings that have died after only one or two years of life. Apparently my stereo wasn’t engineered to fail. However, time has it’s way and my musical companion is finally on it’s last legs. A browse of the Best Buy and related websites makes me think that finding something that is just as good will be impossible. And since I don’t have an IPod brand mp3 player to doc into a shelf-audio system, my choices are even more limited. Shame on me for owning a different brand of mp3 player. It makes me truly sad to think that 12 years later I’ll end up having to buy something worse, not better.

Planned obsolescence has a twin called perceived obsolescence. This is where something is not broken, but rather it’s no longer cool. It’s why jeans go from light to dark, tight to baggy, purses from long strap to short, and shoes from skinny heel to fat heel season after season. So you’ll buy the latest ones and throw out the old. It’s why Apple has released new models / colours / storage capacities of iPods at a break neck pace- because people will actually toss the old one to buy the new one… just to gain 2 more Gigs of space that they weren’t using before, or to get it in the hot new colour. What a waste. How expensive.

Where does happiness really come from? Most people acknowledge that it doesn’t come from buying stuff. I bet that having more free time to spend with family, friends, and hobbies would go a long way to boosting national happiness. But the opposite is happening. We are working longer hours. Two income families are practically a requirement now. We are working weekends more often. What happened to all the time we saved with washing machines, the Internet and other time saving gadgets? It’s been converted into work time, not play time. So, what would happen if we all just backed off the shopping and stopped keeping up with the Jones’? The economy would contract to be sure, but just maybe we would find an equilibrium with room for more true happiness, and less broken junk. As consumers it’s our duty to demand that companies increase product quality, not intentionally sabotage it.