The Obsolescence Trap

Talk about first-world problems. My iPhone 4 continually gives me the same “cannot get mail” error message. No matter what I do, the message keeps popping up. The normal American reaction: there is supposed to be a new iPhone 5 coming out next month!

When it comes to technology, we always want the newest gadget that performs the fastest and has the best features and design. This is usually pinned on planned obsolescence — the idea that gadget manufacturers purposely make sure their devices stop working in order to sell us newer devices. This, in turn, creates more landfill matter.

But it might not be the fault of Steve Jobs and his reality-distortion field. Maybe we consumers are to blame. As Rob Walker’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Replacement Therapy,” explains, planned obsolescence has become more and more about the consumer’s perception of a product’s obsolescence: “But the emerging prevalence — anecdotally, at least — of the gadget death wish suggests an intriguing possibility: where electronic gizmos are concerned, product obsolescence is becoming a demand-side phenomenon.”

It’s hard to think that we might secretly wish ill on our beloved gadgets — more than half of us take our iPhones to bed. Perhaps planned obsolescence when it comes to technology is not just some corporate scheme. Marketing authority Philip Kotler says, “Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society — forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.” This is exactly what we demand from businesses. The whole point of technology is constant improvement: we expect technology to constantly improve the quality of life and subsequently to improve itself. So naturally we expect better, newer gadgets to be produced, and naturally we want to buy these newer products sooner or later, preferably sooner. This is where the death wish comes in. We don’t want to be guilty of excessive consumerism, but we do want the newest, best stuff. As Walker puts it, “Obsolescence isn’t something companies are forcing on us. It’s progress, and it’s something we pretty much demand. As usual, the market gives us exactly what we want.”

There is a way out. We’re moving into a world of constraints. The modern era has been defined by an embarrassment of riches. We’ve had too much of everything: too big houses, too big cars, too much food. But we’re looking at a new era of constraints, if only because we’re forced to do so by the prospect of a prolonged economic downturn and an environment that’s slowly dying. That’s not to say business will die. There are companies like Gazelle that thrive on our perception of obsolesence and help with the problem of electronic waste by buying back people’s used gadgets to resell and recycle. There are sharing services like Zipcar that allow us modern comforts without the need for duplicative ownership and waste. Maybe then we’ll get to the point where we won’t have to wish that bad things will happen to our technology.

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