Planned Obsolescence

The concept of “planned obsolescence” \citep{kenton19} has been in the United States since at least the 1920s, when General Motors introduced a new production and marketing strategy. GM started to design and construct new models for just a single year, so last year’s cars seemed to be out of date. The strategy worked and appeared in other sectors as well. If a product is old-fashioned, or does not work well after a certain period, the consumer seeks new items. Built-in obsolescence can be implemented through two different mechanisms. First, a new, superior model appears and people should be convinced by advertisements to buy the new model. Second, the product is intentionally designed to be nonfunctional within a planned time period. In both cases, consumers prefer the next generation of products to the older ones.

The main social reason that planned obsolescence worked was the rapid emergence of a strong middle class during the 1950s, which is sometimes called the Decade of Prosperity. The purchasing power of the median American family grew by 30% during that time \cite{shmoop}. Progress in science and technology, combined with the availability of cheap oils from U.S. wells were the driving force of the increase in industrial productivity. Europe and Asia were still recovering from World War II, so America did not have peer competitors. People who lived in poverty during the Great Depression and World War II were very motivated to buy, and suddenly they were able to purchase bigger cars, larger houses, and better and longer educations. In addition, disposable goods appeared, and people had the financial means to replace products.

From the Centennial Light to the not-so-long-lived bulbs

Commercially viable light bulbs were invented by Thomas Edison (1847-1931). In the first three decades after their invention, carbon filaments were used. The Centennial Light is the world’s longest-lasting light bulb—it has been burning since June $1901$ and is located in Livermore, California. It is a hand-blown, carbon-filament light bulb. While the bulb has been “off” several times, generally due to human intervention, it has never ceased to be functioning. Since bulbs produced later had a much shorter life duration than that of the Centennial Light, they are frequently referred to as a paradigmatic example of planned obsolescence.

Phoebus cartel

The Phoebus cartel was formed in $1924$ to manage and control the design and engineering of shorter-lived lightbulbs. At that time, more and more often, tungsten filaments were adopted. An excellent paper\citep{krajewski14} describes the history of the \emph{grand lightbulb conspiracy}. The goal of the bulb industrialists was a systematic reduction in the capacity of lightbulbs from $1,500-2,000$ hours of functionality to $1,000$. It is interesting to see that the researchers had to find conditions that would \emph{reliably} provide the reduced life duration. Phoebus was a global cartel, including General Electric and Tokyo Electric alongside the big European companies, such as Germany’s Osram, the Netherlands’ Philips, France’s Compagnie des Lampes, the Hungarian Tungsram, and the British Associated Electrical Industries. While the cartel managed to keep the artificially elevated prices for a while, competitors did emerge to provide cheaper, often lower-quality goods. Specifically, while Tokyo Electric was a member of the cartel, small, family-owned Japanese workshops produced almost hand-made, cheap bulbs, mainly for the international market. The cheap bulbs were not necessarily financially favorable, since the low price was overcompensated for by increased current consumption. As World War II started, the coordination necessary to keep the cartel alive was impossible, and the first global agreement to implement global planned obsolescence was nullified in 1940.

Planned obsolescence is with us, with no intention to leave

Over the course of three decades, I (P) have had about eight to ten digital notebooks and laptops. In most cases, I decided to change devices when the cost of repair was not too far from that of buying a new, more technologically advanced model. I believe I still have at least four of the old devices, so technically they don’t contribute to e-waste. Moore’s law says that transistor count will double every $24$ months, so generally, the new laptop represented a higher technical level. I have been living in the world of the Linux operating systems, now in the Ubuntu $20.04$ version. While I don’t believe the laptops were planned to have a limited reliability, the reality is that I am almost sure the Reader’s experience is not very different from my own. (Two weeks after I wrote this paragraph, I returned to it to complain that the smartwatch I use to track and improve my fitness suddenly died after just 18 months of use.)

The surprising reality: Unrepairable laptops and smartphones are one symptom of the throw-away society in which we live. It is still somewhat surprising that the business model—based on batteries that users cannot replace—worked. We consumers could not resist buying these very new type of gadgets, even though we were supposed to throw out the whole device when the battery was gone. Not only do batteries die out, but we have also learned that sometimes things like operating systems or apps can suddenly no longer be upgraded.

With some mixed feelings, we are inclining to agree with opinions \citep{hadhazy16} that the throw-away society has beneficial aspects as well.

A balanced view

First, the rapid turnover of goods correlates with the creation of jobs. Second, there is a huge increase in the availability of relatively cheap goods for many people, not only in wealthy countries but in developing countries too. While we cannot deny that more people have had a better quality of life as a result of our consumer model than at any other time in history, it is also responsible for global warming and toxic waste.

Throw-away culture generates huge amounts of waste. As environmental consciousness continues to expand, consumer goods might become less disposable. Google initiated \textbf{Project Ara}, for developing a modular smartphone device that lets you easily swap out components that are either broken or in need of an upgrade, but the company canceled the project a few years later.

As we throw away machines and devices, since we feel that they are out of date, the result is a huge mountain of e-waste. It is worth to see the numbers published by The Global E-waste Monitor 2020\citep{forti20}:

“In 2019, the world generated a striking 53.6 [metro tones] of e-waste, an average of 7.3 [kg] per capita. The global generation of e-waste grew by 9.2 [Mt] since 2014 and is projected to grow to 74.7 [Mt] by 2030—almost doubling in only 16 years. The growing amount Electrical and electronic equipment, short life cycles, and few repair options. Asia generated the highest quantity of e-waste in 2019 at 24.9 [Mt], followed by the Americas (13.1 [Mt]) and Europe (12 [Mt]), while Africa and Oceania generated 2.9 [Mt] and 0.7 [Mt], respectively. Europe ranked first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita, with 16.2 [kg] per capita. Oceania was second (16.1 [kg] per capita), followed by the Americas (13.3 [kg] per capita), while Asia and Africa generated just 5.6 and 2.5 [kg] per capita, respectively.”

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