Planned Obsolescence is Destroying Us

I have a five and a half year old car. When I went shopping for said car I had basically three requirements: it had to be bigger than my Chevy Cavalier, it had to have a sunroof, and it had to have Bluetooth connectivity. I ended up with a surprisingly primitive car. It has the power sunroof and power windows. It has a 6 CD changer. It has an Aux In plug in the center console. It has Bluetooth. It has 1 6-way power seat. It does not have an in-dash GPS. It does not have integrated Wi-Fi. It does not send me emails when it’s time for an oil change. I didn’t want any of that shit.

My reasoning was simple. The more stuff you put onto a car the more there is that can break. The more there is that can break the more expensive it is to maintain that car. So if I got that fancy in-dash GPS system and it broke I’d be out, say, $2000 (actually more like $4-5000, when you consider that said fancy in-dash GPS cost more money to buy in the first place). My $200 portable Garmin GPS, though? I could buy ten of those fuckers for the cost of that one in-dash unit.[1]

Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that most of the stuff that’s now on cars looks really cool in the showroom or on commercials but is annoying as fuck to live with day-to-day. The guys on Top Gear managed to find a nearly endless well of comedy by simply showing two of the guys drive away while the third (usually James May) sat in a Mercedes or Maserati and tried to figure out how to start the damn thing.[2] All of that shit is unnecessary for basically 100% of drivers. But it looks really cool in the showroom, so we just keep seeing more and more garbage put on our cars.

I sold audio equipment back in the day. We were always trying to upsell customers who were looking at the receivers and whatnot. There was usually a 1000-series unit that was just bare-bones garbage, then a 2000- and 3000- series unit that were perfectly acceptable. What you wanted to sell, though, was that 4000-series monster whatever. The thing that inevitably set the 4000-series apart was that it offered a whole bunch of different modes and a bunch of gobbledygook terminology like “dynamic leveling” or other meaningless marketing mumbo-jumbo. Odds are extremely good that everyone who bought that 4000-series took it up, set it up, set the mode to “Theater” or “Live Sports” and never changed anything ever again. But, dammit, he bought the 4000-series because of the dynamic leveling and the 56 pre-programmed equalizer settings and all his buddies who only got the 3000-series are so damn jealous even though the 3000-series is actually the same damn unit without that little digital display.

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Have you ever seen an appliance built in the 1950s? They are overengineered monstrosities built like brick shithouses and designed to last until approximately five years after the Sun goes supernova. You would think that if you took that sort of attitude and added it to the massive leaps in technology we’ve made over the last 6 decades we’d all be buying refrigerators designed to last longer than the universe. Instead we’re getting appliances that last for exactly three days past their 5-year limited warranty.

The reason for this is a concept called “planned obsolescence.” That’s the idea that something should be designed to last for a couple of years and then get replaced. It’s why you get a new smartphone every 18 months and a new dishwasher every 5 years even though your grandmother still has the same washer-dryer she bought at the Five-and-Dime in 1957 and you’ve got a Nokia candy bar phone in a desk drawer that still totally works and lets you play Snake like a boss.

I know that we can build stuff to last way longer than we used to because I know how cars are built now. I’m not talking about your in-dash GPS or trunk-mounted latte machine. I’m talking about the actual guts of the car. Cars that were built in the 1950s weren’t actually supposed to have long shelf lives because the metal rusted out in about ten minutes and the seals on the engine, hoses, and fluid lines were terrible. We’ve made quantum leaps in that technology. It used to be a big deal when a car hit one-hundred thousand miles. Now if a car doesn’t go that far it’s pretty much a lemon. You used to have to get an oil change every 3,000 miles and check your oil pretty much every time you filled up (which was twice a week because the cars got 9 miles to the gallon). There also used to be maintenance checklists where you’d basically have to get your 3,000 mile oil change, then every 6,000 miles get a tire rotation, every 9,000 miles check the transmission fluid, and at 24,000 or 36,000 miles get a major tune-up. My car’s factory recommended oil change is 7500 miles. I don’t think I’ve ever checked the oil myself. When I hit somewhere in the neighborhood of the old 36,000 mile mark I took the car in for the usual oil change and tire rotation and was terrified they’d give me a $500 list of things that needed to be done. Nope. All of that stuff happens at 100,000 miles or so now. I can drive it for another 4 years before I have to worry about the timing belt. Engineering is better. Unibody construction built with high-impact plastics and carbon fiber basically removes structural failure due to rust from the equation.

We can make things that are just better in every way than in the past. We can make things that will outlast the slow heat death of the universe. We choose not to, however. We build things that are supposed to break 2 years after we take them out of the box. Why do we do this? Because the entire American and, therefore, world economy is built on making sure we’re constantly buying shit we don’t need.

Why are millions of Chinese workers spending their days in unsafe factories putting iPhones together for pennies an hour? Because that’s the only way that Apple can sell you an iPhone for $299. Why is Apple trying to sell you an iPhone for $299? Because they know you need to replace the iPhone you bought for $299 in 2013 and want to make sure you replace the one you’re buying now in 2017. So they make ‘em cheap. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’ve researched the hell out of that price point and know that the average consumer will balk at buying a new iPhone every 2 years for $399. There’s also a pretty decent chance that they could build one at a $599 price point that will last for 5 or 6 years, but then they’ll go out of business in 2017 or something different will capture the zeitgeist and they’ll lose all of their customers.

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This, then, is the part three I didn’t realize I needed when I wrote “The Only Thing Wrong with Corporate America is Everything” and “We Owe Our Souls to the Company Store.” We’ve built planned obsolescence into everything, even shit that doesn’t need it. Our cars that can mechanically last for ten years easily now have a bunch of shit in them that will break in three. Even so, we really don’t want to keep that car for more than three or four years because the all-new redesign for 2017 comes with a popcorn maker and a little arm that gives you a handjob when you’re waiting at stoplights (you laugh, but I’ll bet someone at BMW just got a really confusing erection).

The reason we keep building our stuff to break is because the economy in America is unsustainable without rampant, unnecessary consumerism. We’re no longer able to see the bars on the cell because life is a never-ending barrage of commercials and messages that if you just get that new car or new phone or new backpack you’ll finally be happy and you’ll finally be accepted by the cool kids and you parents will finally tell you that they’re proud of you. We’re also increasingly dependent all of this shit and hopeless when it breaks.

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We’re also talking about renewable energy. We’re talking about using re-usable bags at the grocery store to cut down on disposing of plastic bags. We get self-righteous about separating the recyclables out from the trash. What about that stack of broken iPhones, though? What about the five year-old washer and dryer that the guys just carted away because they broke and you got a new set?

What about all of the moralizing Americans get into over China’s terrible labor practices and the fact that they’re dumping waste into their rivers and belching soot into their skies in a race to industrialize? What is driving China’s industrialization? Our $299 iPhones. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that everything out there that uses a circuit board requires rare-earth elements that are mined in conditions that make blood diamonds look like a game of Candyland.

All of this comes at a massive, terrifying cost but we, frankly, don’t seem to care. Tomorrow can take care of itself because I need that new shiny today. The true costs of that cheap iPhone will be paid on the other side of the world right now and by our children or grandchildren.

We keep living this way because it will cost a lot to change. The costs of not changing are unimaginably higher. I don’t think we as a society will realize that until it’s far too late.

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[1]The calculations actually get worse the longer you own the car. Let’s say I bought a unit in my 2010 model year car. In 2012 they discontinued my style and came out with a brand new version of the 6. I assume that also means that they re-did a lot of the bells and whistles, so if in 2015 my in-dash GPS broke they’d probably be all, “Well, we discontinued that unit 3 years ago, so they don’t make these anymore. That’s gonna be five grand to replace.” I assume that scenario is at least a possibility.

[2]I have a friend who drives a Prius. A couple weeks back he asked another friend to move his car because it was parked illegally. Said other friend held up the little black key fob thing and told me that he couldn’t figure out how to start the car because it had no key. That’s another one of those things. My car has a goddamn key. I test-drove a couple of cars that had the whole keyless push-button Bluetooth fob technology thing and while it was initially cool all I could think of was, “What happens if this breaks or the battery dies?” Yes, your key could break, too. But I’m far less worried about that. Also, again, you’ve just paid another thousand dollars for something that will then cost you a couple grand to fix when it inevitably breaks. I just don’t get it.

One thought on “Planned Obsolescence is Destroying Us

  1. There’s also increasing lock-in. Buy an Android phone now and in two years time you won’t be able to get updates for the latest security flaw, not because it can’t be done, but because you can’t install a new OS image without the vendor’s permission and they won’t give it. I have computers that are ten years old and still giving productive service… because I run an open operating system on them.

    Now try changing the oil on a recent car, and resetting the oil change warning. In the EU you can just about do that thanks to legislation requiring basic OBD2 compliance on every car. Elsewhere? Main dealer, and if the main dealer has been told not to service that model any more you’re out of luck. So then the car goes into “safe mode” (i.e. super slow and inefficient)…

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