Planned Obtuseness

People who often decry ‘planned obsolescence’ as some sort of objection to markets are not the brightest bulbs in the firehouse. So I have to clarify everything upfront or I will get the shit storm of people “disagreeing” with me when we actually agree.

When I use the term “planned obsolescence” I’m talking about one type specifically. That is that manufacturers deliberately limit the lifespan of a good for the explicit purpose of getting more repeat business. I’m not talking about the other forms.

So what sorts of ‘planned obsolescence’ are real? Let’s say you’re a technology manufacturer, and you find that your customers like to upgrade on average every 2 years to the latest product. So you design your product with parts that can wear out in about 5. You do this for legitimate reasons. Why waste time, energy, and money on resources that will give a phone a 100 year lifespan have to be recycled into something else or thrown out in 2-5 years? A lot can change technology-wise in 100 years, even in 10 years. Imagine how much of a fool you would have been to buy a pager in 1997 that costs 300 dollars more because it will last a lifetime when no one uses them 10 years later. Who knows what the future will be in cell phones in 10 years from now or 10 years after that. How would you feel if you bought an iPhone 1, G1, or a Blackberry at 4 times the cost so it would last 90 years. You would have already had it recycled. (BTW, if you’re not recycling your phone, you’re an asshole and you’re also breaking the law. Your cellphone provider will tell you so.) This is perceived obsolescence. The technology will be phased out even if the hardware is up to the task so manufacturers cut costs for you so you’re not overpaying for something you won’t even use. I see this as beneficial for all parties involved. This is not what we will be debating.

The argument I will be debating is that companies, with malicious intent, rig devices and goods to die out so you’ll come back. First of all it fails on purely logical grounds. Let’s say you’re Company X and you make a widget designed to fail in 2 years and there’s no real reason to do so besides increasing sales. This would mean that if Company Y made a widget without this time-bomb, they would gain market share because they could advertise that their product lasts longer at the same price. Take a light bulb. You have a choice between 2 light bulbs with identical light outputs but one lasts 1 year because of an intentional design flaw, and the other lasts 2 or more years. Word gets around that Company X’s light bulb doesn’t last as long as Company Y’s and X will lose market share.

On the other side of the coin you will have consumer advocacy groups like Consumer Reports that will announce the faulty products and recommend Y over X and market share is lost. The other problem is those fucking geeks. The lifehackers, the reverse engineers, and the other geeks who like to see how things work will identify faults and publicly expose them. If they find something that seems deliberate, lawyers will find these consumers who were defrauded and file a class action against Company X. Company X now will use the extra money it gained fighting a legal battle and paying restitution. Not a smart move.

Ah ha, Jim! Didn’t you see the Pyramids of Waste/Light Bulb Conspiracy?! There was a cartel who limited the span of light bulbs! Haven’t you heard of the Centennial Light Bulb?! It’s been on for over 100 years! Debunk that!

Oh, I will. First let’s talk about the Centennial Light Bulb because it’s not related to the cartel or planned obsolescence. I made a video about that and I suggest you watch it and then we’ll talk about Phoebus.


The Phoebus Cartel was an interesting topic, but it’s often over simplified for ideological reasons. The cartel didn’t have a hold of every light bulb market. There were Nordic companies who did make longer lasting lamps but they did not sell over the shorter lifespan bulbs. Why was this? Because the longer lifespan bulbs used more electricity and put off more heat than light than the shorter lifespan bulbs. People found it more advantageous to buy bulbs more often, pay less for electricity, and get more light. It’s also why we transitioned to tungsten bulbs not long after with an even lower life span than the Phoebus cartel’s regulations. Tungsten lamps burned cooler and brighter.

I made the point in the above video and I think I should stress this point here. If you think that companies intentionally retard products for repeat business, how do you explain light bulb manufacturers introduction of CFL lamps which have almost 10x the life span? All the while they were developing and refining the LED lamps to last even longer. Why didn’t the light bulb companies lobby the government to ban CFLs on environmental grounds to protect their planned obsolescence model of incandescents? “Those CFLs will get mercury into our water and farms!”

Now this is not to say it’s possible or even that this can exist. There are cases where you have a walled garden system where you’d need to buy their refills for their products but they are typically on the fringe or for hobbies. Tamagotchi Pets come to mind, but even those had to cave to reusable models after backlash.

Anyways, love to hear what you guys think. For now I have to go to the store and replace these apples that are overripe because of Mother Nature’s planned obsolescence. Curses! 

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