This week Shaën made a good presentation about planned obsolescence and zombie media. After her presentation, she asked the class if we would work in a company which practices planned obsolescence in their products. The more things get complex, the more we can’t understand or repair the broken things, the more power the product producers have. Things we don’t understand what happens inside are black boxes. But also something we’re not able to repair by ourselves (i.e. a CPU) are likely a black box. It was hard for me to answer that. Would I reject a job in a large tech company as i.e. Apple? How much would I weigh these principles if I really have to choose?

Planed obsolescence in history

In 1920 manufacturers planned that their products will obsolete earlier (Norman, Donald. 1988. The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books. New York) Sure, planned obsolescence was there forever but maybe just on a smaller scale. 1932 Bernard London proposed a new idea during the great depression that every product should have an expiration date, so people must (by law) buy a new product. (Hertz, Parikka. 2010. Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method.) Broken Ford cars were disassembled to find out the weak parts of the car. But instead to try to make them stronger, they wanted them to break all at the same time because they could save money. Another very famous example is the «Phoebus Cartel» from 1924, where companies regulated the life span (1000 hours), brightness and power consumption of their light bulbs. A bit more recent is the planned obsolescence of printers. It’s known that printers can either have some prepared ink cartridge, integrated software that tells you to buy a new printer or an ink sponge which could not be replaced. Today the biggest thing is probably an artificial urge of the customers to buy the newest stuff. It’s called the trend.

Categories of planned obsolescence

So I took some time and thought what actually planned obsolescence is. To make it easier for me and to have some structure I figured out some categories for this. Please note, this is not scientific, nor it’s based on strong references. Just my personal observation. If you do not agree with that, feel free to correct me.

Decay

This is actually where things break. Manufacturers or designers plan things to break or not work after a specific usage. It often works together with black boxes where we are not able to repair it by ourselves and it’s not economically appropriate to fix it. This is the very dark spot of product design.

Innovation

New shiny things are one thing. But often times design should make the world better, which mostly is made through making life or a task simpler. It also correlates to redefining standards. If you want to keep your system running, go buy the new stuff! So here you already see a conflict. It doesn’t need to be bad or good because we want to have things better, which is ok. But then the environment will suffer. Innovation needs taking risks to let us find a better solution couple years later. Products like i.e. a knife are here for hundreds of years. We’re now able to make knives that last for generations because the technology matured. We now can make the timeless piece. I assume same would happen with new technologies we have today. We can prevent obsolescence caused by innovation if innovation is not very necessary anymore.

Fashion/Trend

All of us are familiar with this. New shiny things, old cheesy things. Fashion changes each season. So trends do. So, we have to buy the new stuff. Doesn’t matter if it’s better or not. Often it only relies on the fact that it looks «new» in a visual way but the same properties. It makes buying things an endless process.

Subscription

Instead of buying new things affected by our emotions, we can have a subscription. It secures us to have it without have to think about it. Often times effortless and subconscious.

Good or bad

Good things

We’re now in a society where at least not the completely ignorant people are aware at least a bit aware of the environment no matter if we really take action… So for us as customers and people, we don’t like to be fooled by other people or companies. So we don’t like this topic. But I was curious and wanted to look if there are good things about planned obsolescence. There was not a lot. If you want to contribute some, get in touch with me.

  • It reinforces the money flow and so the economy.
  • It helps people to be open to innovation

Bad things

  • Obviously, it’s a disaster for our environment
  • It leads people to be dependent on products
  • Products are not focused on their purpose anymore and honesty

Digital Products

I noticed that it’s a different thing with digital products. The fact that they are never really finished leads companies to offer subscription models. The more I think about this, I think it’s fair. It also is not so bad for the environment if you just have to update the bits on your computer memory. It maybe is what Bernard London visioned in 1932. But it often leads us to dependency and unconscious consummation. Which brings up other issues which are outside of the obsolescence discussion. After all, we should not forget that digital products can also lead consumers to buy new physical products, as you can see in the computer game industry. Here gamers often (as a «free option») have to buy new hardware regularly like we do it with our clothes.

Would I work like that?

Finally, the question of Shaën: Would I work in a company which practices planned obsolescence? Still, it’s hard to answer. As sad as it sounds, it’s probably impossible to avoid some kind of obsolescence. It’s on us to decide how far we want to go and if we can find alternatives. Working on digital products has its advantages, for sure. But most important is, of course, to be aware of such issues and to discuss with people who can decide.

Being honest

In short term, we can maybe make a lot of money by trying to fool our users. But to make a long term relationship with our users/customers, we have, to be honest like we expect it from a love relationship. Tricks and hacks may lead us quickly to the result we want to have right now. But hard, fair and honest work could make our product a life fulfilling part of our life. Well, I’m 22 now. Please, don’t take me to serious. But if Dieter Rams would agree with that, can not be that wrong.