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Planned Obsolescence: A double-edged sword

— August 4, 2016

The modern consumer economy is a thing of wonder, isn’t it? We don’t just have iPhones, we have brand new models of iPhones every couple years. We don’t just have two linen shirts to wear anymore, we have new lines of fashion twice (or more) annually and most clothes are so cheap, it doesn’t matter that they wear out quickly; just toss that t-shirt on the rag pile and buy another one for a couple bucks. It’s a time of great plenty, and great waste. It’s worth asking why clothes and consumer electronics have such a short shelf life, and the answer is found in the concept of planned obsolescence.

Step back a moment and consider how convenient it would be if you didn’t need to buy new widgets all the time, because the old ones didn’t need replacing. The lightbulb in the foyer that is hard to reach wouldn’t require dragging out a ladder for decades. You wouldn’t have to spend a couple hundred dollars on a new phone every couple years and, instead, you could save that money for some other goal. Your washing machine and refrigerator would last for a generation. How much time and money could you save if goods were more durable? Why does it have to be this way? Because planned obsolescence is incredibly profitable.

This documentary, “The Lightbulb Conspiracy,” originally aired on Norwegian channel NRK2 and was released under creative commons licensing.  It served to bring the realities of planned obsolescence home to a wider audience.

The Lightbulb Conspiracy (Full Documentary)

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve gotten better and better at making tons of stuff. Mechanization of agriculture and centralization of farms forced people from the country into the cities, where there were jobs in the factories making all that stuff. Not having your own land to grow your food meant that you also needed money from a job in order to feed yourself, and the cycle was set in motion. Eventually, people didn’t need much more stuff, because well-made quality goods didn’t require replacing, but that also meant that the owners of the machines had the capacity to keep churning out goods that not many people needed anymore, and the workers running those machines weren’t needed to keep up with the churning.

The writing was on the wall, but where would all those workers go? There was no family farm to go back to, and everyone needed money in the urban economy. Of the two available answers (dialing back the notion that eternal growth was desirable or doubling down on the churning throughput), only one was acceptable to industry. As a result, at least in the capitalist world, products became shoddier and cheaper, and more jobs were saved for workers. And workers themselves needed to keep at those jobs, working ever more hours, in order to keep affording new products to replace the broken and obsolete ones they kept purchasing in exchange for hours of their lives that they would never get back. The only difference nowadays is that more people spend those hours in cubicles or behind counters, eschewing vacations and not making too much fuss lest they lose their jobs, more precious now that we’re exporting them as fast as we can invent new versions of stuff to make.

The symbiotic relationship between industry and workers that is based on always needing to manufacture and purchase new widgets is only cyclical when observed from this perspective. These are the two sides of the sword: the need of capital to keep earning profit, and the need of people to be continuously employed. When viewed from the perspective of the resources used to make all these cheap products, though, the sharp point comes into brilliant focus. Instead of being cyclical, as in nature, where the “waste” from one process (such as fallen leaves) becomes the resources for the next process (building soil or feeding the fungi), industry became a one-way path from field or mine, to factory, to consumer, to landfill. While some materials can be recycled (itself a heavily industrial and energy-intensive process), much is not, and that’s another product we export: mounds and mounds of e-waste, clogging up third world nations, poisoning people, and generally increasing misery, while at the same creating small jobs (such as burning dead electronics to harvest the bare metal) that could provide a few pennies a day for food, if you don’t mind breathing the plastic fumes.

In order to make the best decisions, it is a good idea to approach problems with an accountant’s balance sheet in mind. List the benefits on one side, list the costs on the other side, and honestly consider both columns. On one side, there are profits for the investor class and employment (usually of the soul-sucking variety) for increasingly desperate workers who would like to avoid homelessness and hunger. On the other side, there’s resource depletion for nonessential ends, a waste problem and pollution that makes the world less livable in the long run, international misery, gadgets that need constant replacing, and soul-sucking employment for people lucky enough to find it.

What can we do about it? I’ll cover that in a future post! And in the meantime, I’m going to throw in some casual references to the Kardashians and the 2016 Presidential race in the hopes that these will “date” this piece, requiring my continued employment to create new content for Legal Reader.


The Lightbulb Conspiracy on YouTube
The Lightbulb Conspiracy on
Error 53: E-Waste, the “Right to Repair” and why no one is confronting the problem
Here’s the truth about the ‘planned obsolescence’ of tech
Vanessa Friedman’s Fashion Manifesto

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