Dull and New: The truth behind planned obsolescence

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A person takes a picture with an iPhone. In an age of planned obsolescence, Apple admitted to slowing down the older versions of their product once newer products were available. Photo courtesy of: unsplash.com

Over the weekend I found myself in a most interesting and beautiful home, built, most likely, around the early 1900s and carrying years of history. The homemaker herself had a colossal number of stories about not only the home in which she resided but also the many vintage pieces in it, including, but not limited to, a working dishwasher made also in the 1900s and a microwave oven made around the same time, both of which still worked. Though it seems a small thing to many of us who have grown around the steel-plated dishwasher and slim-looking microwaves, it is an interesting thing to see these older, vintage models still at work. Looking at these vintage pieces and discussing how few things built now truly last this long also lends to thinking about an interesting concept: planned obsolescence.  

Planned obsolescence is no new idea. The trend of products becoming rapidly obsolete has been viewed in both the past and the present. It has been discussed by many how few things “last” nowadays. These are not simply musings from people discontent with certain products. Moreover, there have been specific cases of planned obsolescence. In 2017, Apple admitted to doing just that by slowing down the older versions of their product once newer products were available, a case for which they have paid. But the companies are not the only culprit. Indeed there is a culture of new things or the newest trend that is pervasive throughout our society. But since the culture of fast fashion and such things may be harder to disrupt, the argument against planned obsolescence can be focused on the companies that create the products we have been consuming at such a fast rate.  

But what is the problem with such things? Is it more than a slight inconvenience at times? The answer is simply, yes. For one, the practice of planned obsolescence has drastic implications for the environment. The products of companies, especially electronics, contain components that can be incredibly toxic to the environment. Though some companies do indeed try to recycle parts, especially such things as batteries, nearly 20-50 million tons of electronic waste are disposed of globally and more concerningly comprises nearly 70% of all toxic waste. Planned obsolescence is something that contributes to this by making it more likely that consumers may buy something new, and concurrently throw away the old, than fix the current, and fixing becomes even more difficult if companies design their products.  

A less visible consequence is seen in the erosion of what should truly be the driving force of the creation of new products and services: the betterment of the quality of life for all and the expansion of human knowledge. The more companies move toward maximal profit and utilization of planned obsolescence, the less they move toward the creation of new products to benefit society. Industrialization is the reason we have so much of the new technology we have today. Not all of it has been perfectly good, but I do believe that the spirit of creation is not only a vital force of good but also a pillar of society. The degradation of this spirit, though not currently quantifiable, is bound to have disastrous consequences, likely in the form of things we may lack, should we continue focusing only on the new.  

Apple was simply a start. Indeed, if the detriments to the environment are to be reduced and the core of industrialism — a force of expanding upon human knowledge rather than simply making a profit — policies and action against planned obsolescence must continue to be laid out. These policies will not only hold enterprises accountable for their output, but play a hand in keeping the essence of industry intact.  

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