Not enough consumers know about built-in obsolescence, which would inform their shopping habits. Built-in obsolescence is the deliberate limiting and shortening the useful life of products.
The latest example is Apple’s confirmation that it deliberately slows down some models of its iPhone as they age. It explains and justifies doing so in order to match the diminishing performance of the phone’s battery. It does not help its explanation that Apple has stumbled twice in one month.
Built-in obsolescence has a long history, and was popularised in the American car industry. It became known as planned obsolescence and means that manufacturers deliberately and artificially limit a product’s useful life, so that it will become obsolete (either unfashionable or no longer functional) after a certain period of time.
When I was young in the 1960s, Britain prided itself in ‘building things to last’, whereas the Americans built cars to last only for a few years. The American attitude prevailed because fashion and consumerism took hold of the popular mind. Its aim is to make more money for business, to make ‘the economy go round’ and in the process to please consumers.
Consumerism is the addiction to continue buying products to brighten up one’s dull life. It contrasts with Christian teaching: ‘godliness with contentment is great gain’ 1Tim 6:6; ‘for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’ Php 4:11, ‘having food and raiment let us be therewith content’ 1Tim 6:8 and ‘let your conduct be without covetousness, and be content with such things as you have: for God has said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee’ Heb 13:5.
The love of fashion allowed the promotion of the fashion element of obsolescence. However, the computer age helped to move the topic from unfashionable obsolescence to functional obsolescence. People became familiar with software programmes and ‘drivers’ needing to be upgraded to fix problems; it was no longer simply fashionable to upgrade but also it was necessary to do so. In this milieu, it was easy to build-in functional obsolescence in addition to unfashionable obsolescence.
Many people have discovered that their computers became slower and slower when they become bloated with larger and larger computer programmes. Unwary consumers have experienced the growing bloatedness of Windows technology, gave up and bought a new computer.
When buying a new product and assessing its worth, a consumer has to ask how long it will last before it needs to be upgraded. This is now so common that many do not buy a mobile phone but take out a contract that allows them to automatically upgrade their mobile phone. The concept of continual upgrading is now fixed in the public mind.
The populariser of ‘planned obsolescence’ described its use as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” It corresponds with social media consuming more and more of one’s time.
Light bulbs and batteries fail easily and it is difficult to prove built-in obsolescence, but some early light bulbs were built to fail and anyone can test the claims that rechargeable batteries have a capability of being recharged hundreds of times, and will discover for themselves how woefully untruthful are these claims.
This complaint and blogpost should not be confused with neo-Luddism. Rather, one has to acknowledge the surprising and even wonderful advances in engineering and design which are truly advantageous. However, real and true advances disparage and disgrace those businesses involved in artificial and planned obsolescence.