From Smartphones to Cars: Why you Need More.
The Case of Planned Obsolescence
by Vittorio Compagno for the Carl Kruse Blog
How many times have we seen our grandparents’ childhood toys, such as dolls, spinning tops or cars made of tin, and to think that they were built to last?
Today we could not say the same about the toys of our childhood. Who among us, except for exceptional cases, has managed not to wear out that rag doll, or soccer ball with which we played with our friends?
Never do we stop to think that that object we have in our hand is made to last. Yet knowledge of construction processes has only improved throughout the course of time. Today we invent new materials, and we perfect those invented long ago for the challenges of our day.
So why do we end up throwing away almost everything we buy after a minimum malfunction?
Apparently, it’s convenient for those who sell to us.
This phenomenon takes the name of planned obsolescence, and although the argument is more prevailing today than ever, it finds its roots at the beginning of the last century.
The light bulb conspiracy
In 1879, Thomas Edison created a light bulb made out of cotton filament that had a life expectancy of 14 hours. In the following years, as artificial lighting technology became available to the masses, the life expectancy of light bulbs grew considerably. From the first commercially available bulbs, which lasted a few tens of hours, to bulbs that lasted up to 2500 hours. However, this generated a large decrease in lightbulbs sales , because once you bought one, it rarely stopped working after its average life.
Thus, in 1924, in Geneva, Switzerland, the world’s largest light bulb manufacturers came together. Their goal? Tackling the problem of decreasing sales of light bulbs.
The Phoebus Cartel was born, an oligopoly among the largest producers of light bulbs that boasted members such as Philips and General Electric. From the founding of the Phoebus Cartel there were consequences that would affect the market for years to come.
The companies agreed to make bulbs that would last for an overall time of 1000 hours, effectively halving the life expectancy of their products. If one among the members had not followed the agreement, there would have been economic repercussions.
In any case, profits increased at the same rate as the longevity of the light bulbs decreased, and the Phoebus Cartel, named after the Greek god of light, continued its business for years. So one wonders, did anyone notice the problem of the longevity of light bulbs? The answer is no, almost no one noticed, and the cartel continued to produce weakened products.
What implications for modern society?
While the formation of the Phoebus cartel was detrimental to consumers, it was nevertheless restricted to a relatively isolated market such as light bulbs. However, many companies, in years to come, realized that they could not continue to produce objects that would last indefinitely.
Their revenues would be significantly affected, damaging their ability to invest in research and development, and therefore in the improvement of their products. Thus the trend of decreasing product lifespan expanded to other product categories.
Although the issue of planned obsolescence was noticed by few people initially, it is an insult to say that nobody realized it.
For this reason, some of the more astute companies decided to take the game of obsolescence to another level: the psychological one.
This was an idea of brilliant advertisers of the time, already used to working with the dynamics of mass psychology, who developed a way to make a product obsolete before it even broke. The opportunity was seized by the CEO of General Motors, Alfred P. Loan, who found himself solving a huge problem for the whole sector, namely the decreasing sale of cars . Nobody bought any more means of transport, since everyone had already procured it by now. So GM executives thought about exploiting a vulnerability in the automotive sector, perfectly expressed by Henry Ford’s famous quote:
“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.”
Thus they managed to convince the public that the car was no longer a means of transport, but a way to express one’s personality, and models with increasingly bright colors came out of GM’s factories. Quickly the single-color cars were replaced by flaming red, yellow or blue models, and the automotive market, which GM now lead thanks to its gimmick, recovered.
Today, although a century has passed since the secret meetings of the Phoebus Cartel, or GM’s experiments with the general public, there is still talk of planned obsolescence.
A striking case is that of printer manufacturers, who voluntarily decrease the life expectancy of their products (printers and ink cartridges) to force consumers to buy more.
However, the most astute companies continue to use psychology to prod the consumer. These are the foundations of a large and profitable market: smartphones, and the advertising techniques used by companies such as Apple, Samsung and other giants
Suggest to the consumer that their hardware , bought a year before , is now outdated. Always new colors, incremental improvements presented as features, these are just a few of the techniques used by the great advertisers of Silicon Valley to convince consumers to update their smartphone every year, increasing the e-waste that now fills landfills.
Planned obsolescence has moved from a physical level, such as reducing the life expectancy of products, to a mental one, in which it is the consumer who voluntarily decides the longevity of what he buys, based on trends.
There are solutions that we as consumers can put in place to avoid spending more money on new gadgets and prevent the production of waste (which is very unlikely to be disposed of during this decade).
The first is to have a good examination of conscience, and say to yourself, for each purchase: “Is it worth it?”
Many times the answer to this question is no, and after a few days we desist from buying the new gadget.
However, if we truly think a purchase is worth it, we need to put our choice through another test. We have to ask ourselves: “What benefit can I get from updating my smartphone / refrigerator / television etc.?”
This is the final test for any consumer impulse that may come to our mind, and it should hopefully make us desist from purchases which would not benefit us.
Another solution is to support the right of repair. Although obsolescence is now a mental factor, many companies still try to “push” the consumer to upgrade (see Batterygate).
The right of repair is a battle that has been ongoing for many years, but only in recent months has the debate been rekindled, thanks to the work of people like activist / entrepreneur Luiss Rossman.
Here is a reference to better understand what Rossman’s initiative consists of. To recap, the right to repair is the right that allows those who buy a product such as a smartphone to repair it at their own risk, or decide who to have it repaired.
This gives the consumer an advantageous position because it allows her to choose whether to repair their device at a price for which there is a competitive market, consisting not only of the parent company, but also of independent repair shops, or to replace their product completely.
Repairing rather than updating and being honest with ourselves allows us to delay obsolescence, doing our wallet, mental health, and the planet a favor. Companies have been trying for a century to get us to buy things we don’t need. But we could stop it today if we wanted to.
This Carl Kruse Blog homepage is at http://carlkruse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Vittorio include A War Fought With Lines of Code, The Psychology of Colors in Social Media, AI and Theater, and From Kraftwerk to Techno.|
An older Carl Kruse blog is here.