Planned Obsolesence #1: What/Why

What do the following have in common: Lightbulb, Printer, Nylon, iPhone? As you may have guessed by the title of this blog,  they've all been designed to live an artificially short life, and be expensive to 'fix' properly, so you end up just buying more; anyone who's upgraded a smartphone knows what I'm talking about (iPhone 4 -> 4S anyone? Apple's turned it into a business model...)

It's such a ubiquitous practice that there's a name for it - Planned Obsolescence, and there's a lot of things written about it so I won't go too much into the background, but after watching The Lightbulb Conspiracy documentary on the plane about it, and realising it lined up with a few earlier concepts I'd mused over, I thought it relevant to document my thoughts and see what others thought.

There's a 1951 Alec Guiness movie about it: The Man in the White Suit, where as a scientist he invents a fabric that doesn't break or get dirty, but then comes under fire from both employers and employees that selling it will be detrimental to all of them - an interesting split where the usual goals of science/engineering (make the best thing) are at odds with realism/capitalism (employ people, make the best profit).

I think it sums up nicely that, while it's wasteful and has a negative environmental impact (until recylability increases), there are a few benefits - not only for profits (the aforementioned Apple now the #1 business by market cap) and a functioning economy (Kevin Rudd's $1K bonus, anyone?), but more importantly, to the labour force making the product.

You see, and here's the main thing, we have a lot of people in this world, and these people need something to do. In developed countries there's a huge focus of employment and the number of jobs - America's talking a lot about it in an election leadup, and unemplyment is often mentioned as a bad sideeffect of the current European crisis (especially in Spain, where 20% of under-30s have never been employed).  

These people need money/goods to buy/trade for things, and the current best solution we have is to spend a lot of effort creating unneeded stuff, then making sure it's bought. Simply put, without any other solution, if planned obsolescence didn't exist, people wouldn't have enough stuff to do; I think it's ok as a temporary solution, but more on that in part #2.

One thing worth nothing is that not everything is designed this way - sure, consumer electronics is terrible for it, but for example there's a watchmaker with the great tagline "You never really own a Patek Philippe, you merely look after it for the next generation", and the cookware company with "Circulon, guaranteed for life". It'll be interesting to see whether more things like this start appearing.

That's it for part #1, stay tuned for part #2 which'll cover where I think it's heading; plus encorporating any comments from this one - it may be delayed a bit as I'm working from California for the next two weeks however (hence watching the documentary on a plane), though that hopefully means another blog post city topic.

P.S: for posterity, it seems the entire documentary is on youtube. for those interested:
(note: goes for nearly an hour).


  1. (I'm just copying and pasting this from G+ :P)

    I first learnt about it when I was studying marketing. This was one of the things that made me think that actually, I don't think I want to build a career on selling people shit that they don't need. Let's be a geographer instead.

    My opinion is really as simple as "oooh, it's terrible". Perhaps more than that. I find it utterly appalling. But I think it's partly driven by consumers too - we have short attention spans and we like new and shiny things. Just look at the lines when new Apple products come out. And fashion magazines that tell us what the trends are for the new season. Businesses and marketers are exploiting that as well as giving us an excuse to buy new and shiny things, and if enough of us sought quality that would last, perhaps we can send a message to the people doing this.

    I personally think cradle to cradle is a much better philosophy in terms of designing and producing goods:

    I recognise your point that producing shit is one of the ways our economy functions, and consumer spending and GDP is all the government seems to care about, but if the only way we measure success and is by how much shit we make and sell, we need to change the way we measure things. The economy needs to change. We need to create employment in industries that aren't producing endless amounts of landfill, and that aren't going to be detrimental to the planet in the long run. We only have one planet! And when you throw things "away"... Well, there is no "away", is there?

    This is another great clip, if you haven't seen it already:

  2. Great Post !!! Keep going !!!


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