05 December 2012

On Obsolescence


When we talk about consumerism, the subject of obsolescence comes up eventually. As a consumer who tries to get as much value from my purchases as possible, I thought this was interesting to investigate. I was thinking about writing something on planned obsolescence after watching a documentary called "Prêt à jeter" from the Arte TV channel.

Only I discovered there was more than one kind of obsolescence. Any technique is good enough to make us shun our current possessions and buy something new. If you are also interested in well-thought purchases and living a more simple life, this could be something to know about.

There are three types of "obsolescence" in this context: planned obsolescence, perceived obsolescence and technological obsolescence. All three have for objective to decrease the lifetime of an object and increase the turnover rate of objects in the household. Below is a short explanation of each type of obsolescence and how I try to fight it to make my objects last longer.

Technological obsolescence

This one is the most obvious, that people can easily spot: the advancements of technology make an object obsolete because you just can't use it properly after a period of time. A good example might be home PCs, after a few years they become so slow that not only can't you play the latest video games or install the latest softwares anymore, but a simple internet browsing takes ages. Meaning that if you want to keep using your PC or playing the latest games, you have to replace it even if it still functions.

What I have decided to do as a gamer is to switch to home consoles back during the PlayStation 2 period. This one was bound to die from technological obsolescence as well, but at least it lasted 5 years instead of just one for a gamer PC.

Planned obsolescence

This one is the first I ever heard about. Introduced by the electrical companies almost a hundred years ago, the idea is to make sure the object breaks after a number of use, right from its design and  fabrication. The first example were light bulbs, designed to break after 1000 hours so people can buy new ones more often. Did you know that in the early 1900s, light bulbs could last up to 6000 hours already?

Today, a vivid example of this is how batteries die so quickly, in iPods or cell phones for example. My first iPod, the mini, had its battery die after just over one year. No matter how long I'd charge it, after 15 minutes it was empty. That is planned obsolescence, to make me buy a newer iPod. What I did instead was to buy a dock and plug my iPod mini on it, and turn it into a morning alarm clock. Which I still use in 2012.

Perceived obsolescence

This one is the most tricky and unconscious of all three. Basically, the idea is that an object is still perfectly functionning and technologically up to date, but it isn't trendy anymore, and you, customer, are compelled to want a newer version. You perceive it as being obsolete because it isn't the latest one. The perfect example of perceived obsolescence is the iPhone. Once the iPhone 5 is out, many customers perceive the iPhone 4 to be out of date, even though it still works perfectly well.

This one is the most easily avoided too, since the object can still be used without any problems. The idea is to be aware of it and be content with your current object as long as it works. I still use my iPhone 4 from last year and my MacBook from 2010 and I'm perfectly happy with these.


  1. I think we might have watched the same documentary on planned obsolescence, but in any case it completely blew my mind. The fact that my printers and laptops were designed to break after so-and-so many charges/prints infuriated me!

    Working in the hardware side of telecom makes perceived obsolescence especially tricky for me. I already had an unhealthy love for gadgets going into it, and these days I get to see new phone models approximately 6 months before they're on the market - by the time they're out they're "old news" to me, and I'm already waiting for something that is 6 months down the road! It is of course completely crazy and I try to keep a level head in all of it :)

    Your posts are so interesting Kali, kudos!

  2. I hate this! I get pretty sore especially when it comes to electronics. Which is why I declined when my friends offered to buy me a Kindle for my birthday last year...I didn't want my reading pleasure to be dependent on a gadget.

    I agree about perceived obsolescence when it comes to clothing...although I rag on Zara clothing a lot, the things that didn't fall apart after 10 wears have actually lasted quite long.

    Can't wait to read about what you have to say about cost per wear. If it's a question of managing money , cost per wear is pretty much nonsense: $2,000 is $2,000 no matter how many times you wear it. It is still spending beyond your means.

    I suppose if something turns out to be durable and I wear it often, then it's a better use of my money, but nothing changes in absolute terms.

    Plus you can't really predict durability and frequency of wear until maybe after a year of using something, so it's pretty hard to gauge cost per wear, in my opinion.

  3. Maja - I'm glad you like it! I think it was the same documentary, yes. The journalist struggles with a printer that won't work because it printer a certain number of copies. That made me crazy too. It's true that perceived obsolescence is a tricky one, for every one of us I guess. We are surrounded by so much temptation...

    Lin - E-books are quite the debate indeed. Personally, I stick to physical books because there is a joy in flipping the pages, putting the bookmark after reading etc. I just couldn't switch to an electronic device to read novels. Regarding cost per wear, I agree with you, that's why I'm asking myself a lot of questions about the purpose and efficiency of the method. I'll write something on it once I sort my ideas out about it. Thanks for the insight!