How often have you heard your parents or grandparents remark that appliances these days tend to break down or fizzle out far too soon? There’s more to this than just an old-timer’s nostalgia.
People under a certain age may not recall that many products made in the 70s or 80s were, in fact, one-and-done deals. You’d pay for a washing machine, dishwasher, clothes dryer, refrigerator, or microwave and expect it to last almost as long as the house itself.
By those standards, modern devices fail rather embarrassingly. The typical smartphone lasts up to five years, often less before you need phone repair. Computers typically follow a similar short trajectory. Few larger appliances can go for 10 years or more.
Is modern technology somehow managing to advance in leaps and bounds in other areas while ignoring the very basic concern of durability?
The concern is real
Today’s generations of Millennials and Gen Zers are the first to grow up as digital natives. Many accept the assumption that devices won’t last more than a few years. They shrug off the idea that somehow, older devices, engineered back when technology was less sophisticated, could be superior to modern ones.
Yet the evidence shows that this isn’t an illusion. An investigation into the durability of various consumer electronics revealed that companies are intentionally shortening their product lifespans.
This principle is known as planned obsolescence. And one main reason behind it is to stimulate further consumption.
Manufacturers invariably run into a ‘design ceiling’ with any product. New models eventually run out of features that encourage consumers to upgrade. They generate less hype. Not everyone has the appetite to go out and buy the latest new gadget.
Planned obsolescence provides a workaround for that problem. Companies get to specify a point of failure for their products, often barring consumers from resorting to their own interventions or maintenance. It keeps the consumption cycle going.
Defenders of this system will point out that multiple factors make it harder to prolong modern devices’ lives.
As more devices come with IoT capabilities, security becomes a legitimate concern. It’s one thing to roll out firmware updates to smartphones and computers that address issues. IoT-enabled appliances are far more vulnerable.
Battery performance is also cited as a reason for planned obsolescence. This was famously behind Apple’s settlement of the complaint about older iPhones slowing down after a software update.
At some point, the only feasible solution may be phasing out old hardware. Or, in the case of dedicated computing devices, a new OS. That, in turn, may prove incompatible with older hardware. It’s a negative feedback loop at work.
Pushing for planned durability
There may be legitimate reasons to have a limited lifespan built into a product. But there’s no question that such artificially contrived failure is wasteful. For consumers who care about the environment and sustainability, that may be a deal-breaker in today’s world.
Despite the potential security drawbacks of continuing to use old devices after the manufacturer no longer supports them, you may want to do so anyway. It’s hard to argue that buying a new model will be less costly, both to your wallet and the environment, than sticking with something that’s still working.
Beyond that, what every consumer can do is call for planned durability on the part of manufacturers. This goes beyond mere obsolescence by integrating products into a circular economy.
Demand that companies don’t just curtail product lifespan, but plan for how the waste should be managed and brought back into their business model. Use your voice as a consumer to support companies that observe such practices. You could get a longer-lasting and more eco-friendly product over the years.