This way of selling more products by designing products that deliberately fail, cannot be repaired, or have a set lifespan imposed in some other way is known as planned obsolescence. However, it is not just a cynical plot dreamed up by manufacturers to boost profits, many politicians and economists believe it to be a societal necessity. The idea was born in the US during the 1930s depression as a way to get the economy moving again by compelling people to buy more stuff. There were plenty of factories and masses of unemployed looking for gainful work, the trouble was the people who could afford to buy things already had them. What was needed, strategists proposed, was a reason for shoppers to buy things they already had, or didn’t know they “needed”.
By the 1950s, planned obsolescence had become the dominant paradigm in mass production with things no longer built to last. A sophisticated advertising industry persuaded people to shop. Mechanisms flourished to make this easier, from department stores to credit. Consumerism was born. Some industries, such as fashion are predicated on planned obsolescence, with items being made to last a single season or less. Other industries are following fashion’s high-turnover model and bringing out products that have cosmetic gimmicks or seasonal appeal but which will soon appear dated.
Computer says no
Many people wonder whether electronic products are being designed to fail, from television sets, which have heat-sensitive condensers deliberately fitted onto the circuit board next to a heat sink connected to the transistors, to washing machines with ball-bearings fitted inaccessibly into the drums so they cannot be replaced. Specific lifespans are programmed by the manufacturers into chips in some equipment, so that printers will stop working after a preset number of pages (sending a message: “internal error”), coffee makers will cease functioning after a preset quota of brews, and memory cards will stop uploading after a preset number of photo uploads. The user is then forced to buy a replacement. Some computers are difficult to upgrade – new versions of software are upwardly compatible so files won’t work on older models or, as in the new Apple MacBook Pro, the RAM is soldered to the motherboard, making it difficult or costly to upgrade or replace the hard drive and battery. As a result, users can find themselves buying a new computer every couple of years.
Another trick is to make parts and accessories incompatible between brands or even models of the same brand. Thus, not only do consumers need to buy a different memory card or battery or charger for each device or brand of electronic equipment they buy, from phones to laptops to toothbrushes, but they must also buy a new charger or adaptor when they upgrade from an iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5, for example.
Some consumers are starting to hit back, though, advising people on the internet how to find and remove the printer chip or over-write the memory card software. But this is technically challenging and time-consuming, and most people aren’t even aware of the reason for their device no longer working.
Californian Kyle Wiens is the type of sophisticated electronics tinkerer that emperors of the IT industry like Microsoft and Apple dream of employing. But Kyle is a guerilla geek – he slipped through their net and crossed over to the consumer side. Instead of dreaming up intricate ways of fitting more and more components into ever-slimmer gadgets, Kyle is taking them apart.
It started a decade ago, when he was a student and his iBook stopped working, Kyle explains. “I couldn’t get find a service manual for it, so as my friend [fellow student Luke Soules] and I took it apart to fix it, we created our own manual.”