By Thomas Wagner.
Are our technical appliances intentionally made to have a short life? The notion of planned obsolescence alleges that developers and manufacturers deliberately shorten the life of a product. A recently published book looks behind the scenes of product development and at the factors that are relevant for durability.
Nothing lasts forever. When does an object outlive its usefulness? Who decides that? Why does a product become redundant? Is it broken, technologically outdated or no longer compatible? Or has it fallen out of favour? Perhaps it is simply no longer in fashion? Is it possible that a breaking point was deliberately built in by the manufacturer? Whatever the reason behind a product’s useful life, planned obsolescence has become the accusatory catchphrase for consumer goods that are said to be designed for consumption and fast profit.
This is also discussed in the introduction to a book edited by Erik Poppe and Jörg Longmuß, Planned Obsolescence, Behind the Scenes of Product Development. It reads, “Does our society manufacture for the rubbish tip? Are the devices that we buy technological botch jobs? Are consumers being deceived by products that appear to be durable, though they actually feature intentional weaknesses that will soon lead them to break? Is obsolescence unnecessary, yet wilfully created?”
The publication is an open-access project that the publisher “transcript” is offering as a free download alongside the print edition.
Not an extended attack
There exists an accusation that technical, functional or visual characteristics of products are intentionally designed to last for a shorter period so that new-product sales increase. All articles presented in the volume examine such accusations with seriousness. However, the volume as a whole is anything but an extended attack. Rather, the perspective is expanded from a sober, academic point of view to look at the mechanisms and processes in product development and the term “obsolescence”. The articles in the volume range from “Obsolescence as a Systemic Problem” to “Product Life Cycle Management as a Strategy against Premature Obsolescence”, and questions about reparability and management through to context-related issues and societal drivers of obsolescence.
Inside views of the product creation processes
Who could provide better information about intentional manipulation than those who develop, design and manufacture the products? The volume is also based on a research project entitled “Longevity and Obsolescence in Product Development” (LOiPE), which was funded by the non-profit Hans-Böckler-Stiftung organisation and carried out from 2016 to 2018 by Sustainum, a think tank for future-proof economic activities. The project surveyed 41 stakeholders in confidential interviews and conversations outside the control of corporate managers. The issues spanned “from the specific working situation and motivation of the stakeholders in product development to operational strategies and the technical and legal parameters.”
Decisions regarding useful life, durability, recyclability and repair-friendliness are necessarily part of planning, though the consequences of certain decisions cannot be fully foreseen.
The law of obsolescence
As regards the term “planned obsolescence”, the reader learns that its use can probably be traced back to the economist Bernard London, who presented the concept in 1932 as an instrument for economic policy and way out of the economic depression raging at the time. The volume says, “In particular, London saw the consumer as responsible for steadily propping up the economic system by continuously buying new products. Consequently, he argued that a breach of the ‘law of obsolescence’ leads to the paradox of plenty. While people would at first still be better off materially, continually lower consumption would inevitably lead to an economic recession.”
Obsolescence must always be planned
Regardless of the aspects that are discussed in detail, the product development perspective is broadened immeasurably by asking, “What use is a theory about planned obsolescence if it cannot explain that certain manufacturers go to great efforts to delay the obsolescence of their products as far as possible?” That is to say, they prolong their products’ useful lives. There is an example illustrating that even the idea of a 100-year washing machine requires planning obsolescence in advance, because longevity cannot be realised without that planning. Maintenance cycles, spare-part supplies, modular design, upgradeability and repair-friendly designs are features that must be designed and contribute to a longer life cycle. Only studying alleged instances of premature obsolescence is therefore insufficient. Both varieties must be considered if “the product creators’ decision-making processes are to be understood”.
Not a naive fixation on longevity
What’s more, a naive fixation on longevity and the “planned prevention of premature obsolescence can also have the opposite effect” and counteract the intended sustainability aims. According to the thesis, “predetermined breaking points, product bans, overengineering and approaches such as cradle to cradle are at any rate indications that the prevention of delayed obsolescence is a prudent concept in some cases. It can allow product configurations that consume significantly fewer resources than if longevity were the priority. If the premise of an optimised useful life underlies the planning of premature obsolescence, it also applies to the planning of delayed obsolescence.”
In addition, the volume asserts that analyses of planned obsolescence often fall victim to the fallacy of “being able to attribute deliberate planning to a manufacturer due to a product’s quality”. In a nutshell, even if design flaws can be found in a product, there are two possibilities: “that the flaw was created intentionally, or unintentionally”. What follows is that decisions regarding useful life, durability, recyclability and repair-friendliness are necessarily part of planning, though the consequences of certain decisions cannot be fully foreseen. The definition of the phenomenon is just as unbiased. “Planned obsolescence is a strategy in which the obsolescence of a product is planned and conceptually intended.” The dimensions of form, timing and intention then offer an analytical instrument (the FTI model) “to describe the fundamental manifestations of planned obsolescence and reveal the general evaluation problems”. Differentiations regarding material, functional, psychological and economic obsolescence are included.
Obsolescence as a social construct
In the final article, Melanie Jaeger-Erben investigates the factors driving obsolescence societally. According to her, objects that are seen as unusable and no longer worth maintaining – through repairs, upcycling or functional or aesthetic reuse – are the result of a social construct and not a consumer object characteristic predefined by the product developer or manufacturer. “When a product is designed”, Jaeger-Erben says, “there are certain usages and, to a certain extent, a level of performance ‘programmed’ into the object. However, only the actual utilisation constitutes or ‘describes’ how the object is applied and whether the planned usages and performance can be realised in the first place. Interpreted this way, product designers and users are connected to each other; their knowledge, their expectations and the contexts and practice of their actions interact with each other indirectly through the consumer object.”
Therefore, if the societal drivers of obsolescence are to be understood, “the ‘triangular relationship’ between design, usage and consumer object must be considered during the communicative and material production of obsolescence”. She says that it is important to decode the “culture of obsolescence”, saying, “This means that the search for the causes of short-lived electronic products and fast-paced consumption should not involve constructing a detective narrative with clear perpetrator and victim categories. Rather, like at an archaeological excavation, the investigator should expose the fabric and layers of our material culture and ask why the short longevity of consumer products can be meaningful, practical or simply the easiest way for various stakeholders in society.”
For an architecture of responsibility
The assessment of obsolescence consistently strives to stay objective and balanced, however if the reader were ever to wish that its conclusions were occasionally formulated using catchier language, the most important aspects of the subject do have space given to them. It is problematic that design remains reduced to planning and construction and that aesthetic issues largely disappear behind productional, sociological, strategic and psychological ones, and are only abstractly addressed in corresponding jargon if addressed at all.
This also shines a light on a currently generally quite undecided relationship between things and their consumption. Ultimately, however, the position is agreeable: “Only a systematic understanding of the causes, drivers and stabilisers of obsolescence makes it possible to answer the question of responsibility for the useful life and longevity of consumer products in such a way that an ‘architecture of responsibility’ can be developed. An architecture that provides a realistic and forward-looking assessment of the possibilities and potential of taking responsibility for all stakeholders.”
Erik Poppe, Jörg Longmuß (ed.)
Behind the Scenes of Product Development
Research from Hans-Böckler-Stiftung
(German title: Geplante Obsoleszenz. Hinter den Kulissen der Produktentwicklung.)
Published by transcript, Bielefeld 2019 (Germany)
Hardcover, 194 pager, EUR 24.99
PDF: open access