Planned obsolescence: what it is and examples

Planned obsolescence: what it is and examples

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Planned obsolescence. A simple concept, but not too obvious, with which the term "programmed" is used for the useful life of an object which should actually be determined by wear, that is, by use. A "quality" which has become intrinsic to industrial production and which cannot be understood if we do not look at how things have been produced for over a century. Simple.

In society before the twentieth century, things, objects, could not have planned obsolescence because they were produced almost in unique pieces, in a semi-artisanal way, and the manufacturer usually had a relationship of trust with the consumer. A little for the artisan's production culture, a little for the direct relationship with the consumer, the production of these objects, also because the bulk of the value was represented by the work and not by the raw material, they were made to last, both in the logic of things, both for the abundant use of the material.

The dawn of planned obsolescence

And it is a logic that was also followed in the first phase of modern industrialism, the era of mass production, at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, during which objects we do not notice began to spread in society. even more as they are now common, like light bulbs, refrigerators, zippers and cars. Robust materials, good manufacturing and optimal design were the qualities of the first phase of the industry, which relied on quality as a market lever.

But it didn't last long. In fact, as early as the 1920s, companies realized that the worst competitors of their business were their own products, which "They lasted too long" in a scenario in which factories were able to produce more and more objects, reducing the amount of human labor, which is a cost, for everything manufactured.

In practice, the fact that people already owned a durable object was the main obstacle to the growth of turnover. And the business world remedied this in 1924. In that year, in fact, the light bulb manufacturers created the Phobos Cartel which established, among other things, the standardization of attacks, power and brightness, but above all fixed the "ideal" duration - for industries and not for the consumer - of bulbs at 1,000 hours, when it was already easy to produce them lasting 2,500.

This was the first documented case of planned obsolescence, also technically denied given that a light bulb, made to last, has still been lit since 1901: the "Centennial Light" which is located in the fire station in Livermore-Pleasanton in California.

In the following years it was theorized that theplanned obsolescence could be a solution to get out of the 1929 crisis, stimulating the market, while in the same years Dupont imposed on its researchersweaken a substance they invented, nylon, because women's socks made of this material lasted too long and damaged the market.

Computer obsolescence

The Second World War and the economic boom muted the problem that has re-emerged in the last thirty years. With many products, in fact, the market has reached saturation. We all have a refrigerator, a washing machine, even two cars, now even the computer is a common object, two mobile phones - in Italy for all inhabitants including babies - and the market is therefore only that of replacement.

For which objects must break. Thus, with the aid of computerized design and knowledge of materials, the destiny of objects is "programmed". These systems make it possible to precisely identify the type, quantity and quality of the material to be used in a product, planning its end. And information technology has made the situation worse.

Some devices have an internal control system, ie a computer, may decide that they have run out of components, such as printer cartridges, after a specific number of operations. Or in the case of portable devices, a design is spreading that prevents battery replacement, which is often the fastest degrading component whose malfunction makes a device obsolete that perhaps, apart from the battery, has no defects.

For more information and to read some examples of technological products subject to planned obsolescence I suggest you read my article: Planned obsolescence: light bulbs, smartphones and printers.

The new psychological obsolescence

And so far we have talked about planned technological obsolescence, but there is also another one, perhaps even more subtle. It is the psychological one. This is certainly a technological obsolescence, since it is always the materials that yield, but it concerns marginal aspects for the functioning of the object that continues to do its job, but which are specifically designed to to lose confidence by the user towards his object.

The car is a classic case. The systematic breakdown or degradation of particular non-vital components, God forbid, such as the handles, the seat covers, the headlights, the dashboard, the painting that occur in series after a certain number of kilometers or years, lead to distrust towards the car by the owner who becomes so willing after a short time to change a car that, perhaps, it does its essential duty well: to move.

To do this we use the plastics instead of glass or metal. Polymers, ie the molecules that form plastics in fact, are largely "sensitive" to atmospheric agents and solar rays. And here their use, in adverse conditions, causes their degradation and since a car lives and works outside, premature wear, that is, planned obsolescence, becomes almost obvious. Once again.

Another aspect related to planned psychological obsolescence is that the performance of electronic devices. Often we are led to change televisions, smartphones and computers, because new and amazing performances of the new device are advertised, perhaps only theoretical.

A case for everyone: high-resolution televisions, the last one beyond HD is called 4K, but we are already talking about 8K. Technical details aside, in fact, what stands out is the fact that there are many 4K television sets but few broadcasters that exploit this technology and moreover in a sporadic and experimental way.

And here I stop, also because going forward case by case, we could write a book, or an eBook. But advice on the matter is possible. There is no rush to change your HD TV, allocating a functioning appliance to the landfill, to get the same result with a 4K TV. Better to wait for planned obsolescence to arrive, of course, on the technical front. That is, that your television arrives at the end of its life, obviously programmed. Portfolio and environment thank you.

Curated by Sergio Ferraris

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