-The Human side of design

Why does everything we use get broken or need replacing within a few years? How planned obsolescence affects our everyday life.

Why does everything we use get broken or need replacing within a few years? How planned obsolescence affects our everyday life.

Jan 23, 2024

For 120 years, the Centennial Light Bulb at Fire Station No. 6 in Livermore, California, has been lit continuously. The bulb has yet to burn out, because it was designed to last as long as possible. Meanwhile, mobile devices costing $1500 are deliberately designed to become obsolete in about two years. Owners feel compelled to replace their device with the latest model.

A glorious past: personalized products with a long life.

It wasn't always like this, but today most households still have technical devices that were often bought by our grandfathers and inherited from generation to generation. They still perform their functions perfectly, even if they are not the most modern. We treat them almost like family. They are so much a part of us. While they have done their job reliably, we have regarded them as companions at the tool level and have often given them a name. If we were to start naming our products today, we would exhaust the list of surnames quickly.

Then came capitalism and mass production.

From the 1920s onwards, capitalism, consumer society, and modern-day mass production have, by common consent, been consciously producing products - in the interests of the companies' profit needs and economic interests - that are less durable, that break down quickly, and that are therefore designed to fail.

The deliberate amortization of products over their life cycle is an apparent economic interest and business strategy for firms to ensure that the current version of the product they are producing will become obsolete over time, thus maintaining a continuous future demand for that product.

This is a perfectly logical attitude, at least from companies' point of view, because they need to give their employees jobs and wages. The factories need to keep running, and, of course, they need to make a profit. This has a rather damaging effect on our environment.

Planned obsolescence and pollution

The fact that a manufacturer deliberately shortens the product's useful life to increase consumption is one of the main problems of the current linear economy production and consumption model, yet little is said about it. Surprisingly few people are speaking out against this phenomenon, even when the issue is zero emissions to avoid pollution and climate catastrophe.

The zero-waste movement is the only environmental movement to focus on this aspect. Nearly 50 million tons of e-waste is generated annually, much of which ends up in third world developing countries such as Ghana. Meanwhile, as significant waste consumers, lesser-developed countries have become a virtual sea of rubbish thanks to a “use and throw away” lifestyle.

Of course, the world's technological progress cannot stop.

When we talk about the disadvantages of programmed amortization, we are not against technological progress. This type of development is part of the developed world–we obviously wouldn't want to use DVD players still–and we do need mobile devices that can take good quality photos - these devices improve our lives.

The inevitable consequence of this evolution is that specific product versions, and sometimes entire product categories, become irrelevant in the light of new releases. Unfortunately, we have extended this product approach to almost everything around us.

We need to start differentiating between the devices we use every day and decide which need to be updated. We also need to figure out what can work perfectly without frequent updates because it provides a timeless and well-functioning long-term solution.

The main accomplice of programmed amortization is marketing.

We need to hear more in the media about planned obsolescence. Usually, only the actions of big companies that occasionally make the news, such as the news that Apple had deliberately slowed down the software of outgoing iPhone models to encourage users to buy new devices. (Apple's official position is that it was protecting users - but the company still voluntarily paid out billions in damages in the case.) And the Things 3 to-do list app developers decided that only those who renew the software would get the latest version.

Every day, companies make deliberate strategic decisions to make their older products look obsolete, unusable, or less desirable to users than the beautiful new model they have just rolled off the production line. An entire industry is built on making us believe that we always need the tools we use to be as up-to-date as possible.

We no longer get things fixed.

Difficult to repair, special tools required, deliberately high spare parts prices - these are all techniques companies use to encourage us to buy new. But they also include frequent software updates and annual vehicle model updates.

When my dryer's built-in heat pump stopped working, the service department personally assessed the fault and recommended immediate replacement, which is surprising given the size of a clothes dryer and the difficulty of transporting it. It is unthinkable that, 30 years ago, they would not have tried to repair the machine.

TV repair people and shoemakers are two dying professions, which in the last millennium were still thriving and in demand, but who would think of taking a pair of shoes bought in a fast fashion store to a shoemaker today? It's as if we are embracing planned obsolescence, adapting to consumer trends, and buying tons of new and unnecessary products yearly. What is most striking is that we are no longer talking about this phenomenon only in the technical, clothing, and automotive sectors but also in the DIY and hand tool markets. If you visit a large chain of DIY stores and look at the DIY tools available, you will quickly see that they are designed for occasional, often one-off use.

What can we do as consumers?

We can review our consumption habits. For example, before replacing existing products, we can ask ourselves whether we need to buy a new product. Ask yourself: Does your current product fully perform its function? Make sure that you are not about to run into a marketing trap. If we see that it is not vital to change the product, we can safely abandon the purchase, ignore the loud advertising promises, and believe it is not the new product that will improve our lives. Let's resist the dogma that our most important task in a consumer society is to buy as much as possible.

We can extend our buying cycles. Keep your used items as long as possible, preferably as long as they work. We may have to make some compromises in this area but, if they are still acceptable, we should continue to use the products. Buy products that we know will last longer. Unfortunately, in many cases, buying an extended product warranty offered to the conscious consumer is not an option either because it is easy for the warranty service to recommend a replacement instead of repairing the "obsolete device."

We can recycle: Where possible, buy second-hand items, which can kill two birds with one stone. Since second-hand products are usually cheaper, this approach is better for your wallet. This is also good for the environment, because you're helping to keep a product in use for as long as possible. Moreover, we should keep what we can still use. We should donate items we don’t need anymore, even for free, in case someone else might be able to use it.

They won't bury any of our objects of use with us.

In ancient Egypt, it was common for rulers to be buried with their favorite objects. If there is one thing we can be sure of, we will not be buried with anything similar. We are the ones who bury our belongings on a cyclical basis, every year or two or even more frequently. The long-lasting relationship between objects and the person who used them for decades has degenerated into a brief romance or occasional flirting.

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