As Canadians spend the holidays unwrapping new gadgets and devices to replace models that may only be a year or two old, some people are wondering whether companies intentionally design their products to have an early expiration date.
Experts say that planned obsolescence does in fact exist — although whether or not it’s a bad thing is up for debate.
Rob Walker, a technology and culture columnist for Yahoo News and author of Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, defines planned obsolescence as an emphasis on something other than being built to last when designing a product.
“So maybe not a purposeful design to fall apart, but just a kind of de-emphasizing of making material and design decisions that would make something last as long as possible,” Walker told CBC Radio’s The Current.
Planned obsolescence has existed for a long time in different ways, says Walker. One is through “styling changes,” a tactic he says has been used by the automotive industry for decades.
“The model-year concept kept emphasizing styling changes that were intended specifically to make whatever you bought last year look as much out-of-date as possible, no matter how well it functioned,” Walker said.
Planned obsolescence a good thing
Technology journalist Maria Bustillos says that while planned obsolescence has a long history, it wasn’t always seen as a negative thing.
She traces the term back to the Great Depression, when a pamphlet coined the phrase as something that would stimulate industry by encouraging consumerism during tough economic times.
But the concept of planned obsolescence took a negative turn during the advertising age, when people began to develop a distrust for ads.
“Advertising agencies … were perceived to have so much power over consumers, their behaviour and their way of thinking about American life,” Bustillos said. “The idea was that this is an enemy of American consumers, that they were being manipulated and being made to think things that weren't true.”
The digital revolution and the rise of electronics have only made planned obsolescence more pervasive, according to Bustillos.
“The speed with which technology is adopted plays into these issues really heavily,” she said, pointing to the shifting ways that people listen to music — from records to eight-tracks to cassettes to MP3s — as an example.
Walker says technology is an interesting category when it comes to planned obsolescence because there is a lot of “genuine progress that’s not just larger tailfins.” He says that the difference between a flip phone and a smartphone, for example, is a sign of actual improvement.
'We love [technology] and [it] also drives us crazy, and we want a new one, but are scared of a new one, or are used to the old one and love the old one.' - Technology journalist Maria Bustillos
“It gets a little more murky when you start talking about operating systems, which do sometimes have the effect of … suddenly making obsolete some apps that you have. Or you have to upgrade to a new device if you want to be able to get the operating system,” Walker said.
“And that can be very frustrating because it’s a lot of times less clear that there’s been genuine improvement.”
Despite this frustration, both Walker and Bustillos say some people do crave novelty and want to get their hands on the latest gadget, no matter what it is. Walker describes having an “iPod death wish” — hoping his old iPod would break so he would have a reason to buy a new one.
Bustillos, who admits to having an affection for her old devices, says she thinks most people have a “vexed relationship” with technology.
“We love [technology] and [it] also drives us crazy, and we want a new one, but are scared of a new one, or are used to the old one and love the old one,” Bustillos said. “And it’s how we feel about society generally, I think — a mixed bag.”
Fight against obsolescence
Dutch designer Dave Hakkens has an idea on how to deal with planned obsolescence — at least when it come to cellphones.
'I think it's interesting the companies still want us to have a new phone every two years, but people don't like it anymore. It’s too much of a hassle. They don't want it.' - Designer Dave Hakkens
Hakkens is working with companies to develop a modular phone called Phonebloks. The idea is that people can pick and choose individual parts — like a Bluetooth receiver, a camera or a battery — and replace each part when needed.
“Now, for example, when a phone breaks you throw away the entire device, but it’s actually just one small part often that is broken,” Hakkens said. “So I thought, what if we could just repair it instead of throwing the whole thing away?”
Although he originally came up with the idea as a way to reduce e-waste, Hakkens says Phonebloks is a way to counter planned obsolescence, which he says is being forced on people by companies.
He says when he first posted his idea on the internet, he received emails from people who no longer wanted the hassle of having to change their cellphone every two years.
“You think you want to have a 30-megapixel camera instead of a 12, but in the end I don't think people really want that,” Hakkens said. “I think there’s also sort of a shift where we’re in that people realize that doesn’t make them happy.”