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The Plan is Obsolescence – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (3)

1.

If there is to be a great anti-technology bogeyman, that dubious honor may belong to General Ned Ludd: the great marauding miscreant, armed with a sledgehammer and an army of acolytes who have come to smash the offending machines. As an epithet the term Luddite has come to represent a sort of unthinking technophobia matched with the maddened desire to simply destroy the machinery of the modern world. Yet when one views today’s piles of technological wreckage it is hard not to conclude that the historical luddites (and those who are called “luddites” by people with no understanding of historical luddism) destroyed very little compared to the greatest of machine breakers, namely: those whose profits depend upon the creating and selling of machinery.

Indeed when it comes to machine breaking there is a darkly amusing parallel between those who sought to smash the machines that they feared (rightly) would destroy their way of life and those whose way of life grew to depend upon selling machines that would “require” replacement every few years. Indeed one of the triumphs of technology firms is the creation of devices much more efficient than Ned Ludd’s hammer: for the technology of today doesn’t need to be smashed, it smashes itself.

Even if it technically still works just fine.

2.

Over the course of the summer of 2013 the cellular phone company T-Mobile launched a campaign based around people’s frustrations at having to wait to upgrade their cell phones. The ad’s asked for users to submit their stories about why they were eager to get an upgrade (using the Twitter hashtag #Hate2Wait) for the chance to win a 730 Samsung Galaxy S4 phone. The essence of the campaign was eloquently summed up by the company with the following message:

Beyond a simple giveaway, the promotion was based around hyping the T-Mobile Jump program, which will allow users to trade in their phones for upgrades more often. As T-Mobile attempted to increase their profits by exploiting the eagerness of users for trading in their phones more frequently a similar program was announced by Apple in which users can trade in their old iPhones (assuming they are in excellent conditions) for the opportunity to earn up to $280 of credit towards purchasing…hold for anticipation…a new iPhone.

These programs are not based around helping people to replace broken phones, after all, to obtain the maximum refund for an old iPhone it needs to be in pristine working order. Rather these are programs that aim to entice users to trade in perfectly functional technology for newer technology, with the goal being to get users to make these trade-ins with ever more frequency. Regardless of the fact – restating for emphasis – that the device being traded in functions just fine.

It is not so much that this is an example of planned obsolescence but of the fact that in the world of consumer electronics the plan is obsolescence.

Giving consumers the opportunity to replace their devices with newer ones is cast as an example of a company responding to consumer demand, when in reality it is simply an example of these companies manufacturing a consumer demand based upon a demand of the company’s shareholders: sell more phones. From the standpoint of whether or not a given piece of technology still works these campaigns to encourage speedier “upgrading” are nonsense; however, making consumers continually trade in older models to buy newer ones is very much the logic of technology companies. A person may not really need to buy a new iPhone, but Apple needs them to buy one, a need that is so great that Apple is willing to give them a discount on a new phone (through the “buying back” of the old phone) to ensure that consumption never stops. By firmly ensconcing consumers in this cycle of buy—briefly use—replace—repeat technology becomes disposable and if the cycle is established strongly consumers will not even bother to think about whether or not there really was anything wrong with the device they already had. Furthermore buying up older phones may enable a company to sell these (at a discount) to less tapped regions of the world market and thereby bring in new sets of consumers to this cycle.

This is not meant to suggest that there is no difference between various cell phone models. In particular the jump from what were commonly called “feature phones” to “smart phones” represents a genuine shift in technological capabilities which needs to be acknowledged. Yet the mad rush of planned obsolescence is rarely about such genuine large shifts, instead it has more to do with the shift from one iPhone model to the next or the difference between two reasonably similar devices. It is the T-Mobile ad-speak claiming “smartphones get pretty dumb after 2yrs.” When in actuality the difference is primarily that in two years a phone with a slightly bigger screen has now become available. The more significant point being that if “smartphones get pretty dumb after 2 yrs” it has less to do with any quality inherent to smartphones but instead is related to the way in which consumer electronics are created in our society.

Anybody with a basic understanding of technological history (specifically in its interaction with capitalism) will recognize that planned obsolescence is not particularly new; however, the unsubtle encouraged obsolescence of devices such as cell phones is particularly galling. This was commented upon by Giles Slade in his history of planned obsolescence Made to Break (which was published in 2006, a year before the first iPhone model appeared on the market) wherein he notes of cell phones – after first noting that most cell phones are retired after only about eighteen months:

“people who already have cell phones are replacing them with newer models, people who do not have cell phones already are getting their first ones (which they too will replace within approximately eighteen months), and, at least in some parts of the world, people who have only one cell phone are getting a second or third. Such a pattern renders the term “obsolescence” itself obsolete. It makes no sense to call a discarded but working phone obsolete when the same make and model is still available for purchase and continues to provide excellent service to its owners.” (Giles, 264)

The key (which Giles explores elsewhere in his book) is therefore for the companies manufacturing these phones to convince their consumers that those phones that are over two years old are no longer fine, and to come up with ways (be it “Jump” or a buyback program) to encourage users to take a more active role in the cycle of planned obsolescence. When one steps back there is a certain level of amusing absurdity to ad campaigns like Apple’s buyback and T-Mobile’s #Hate2Wait for hidden within the logic of the ads is a certain sense that the company has actually sold the user a crummy product in the past (one that has gotten “pretty dumb after 2 yrs”) and thus it must be replaced. Though at this point there is little doubt, by anybody, that these devices that are purchased to replace the older ones, will themselves need to be replaced in 2 years.

Thus it will be no surprise if T-Mobile’s next ad campaign may declare that smart phones get “pretty dumb” after eighteen months, or one year, or sixth months, or…by the time you leave the store.

3.

While technological “progress” may seem to suggest a never ending flow of slightly improved consumer electronics it is essential to recognize that the true “progress” here is only in the bank accounts of tech executives growing progressively larger. Or, to put it another way, the degree to which modern technological devices like cell phones seem to be built to be replaced every two years is not a result of the devices themselves and is not a result of anything essential to the design of these devices, rather it is a reflection of the values and biases built into these devices by those who manufacture and market them. A conscious decision has been made at some point within these corporate structures wherein trade-ins and newer models were chosen instead of opting for devices that would last (and might be upgradeable without having to buy a whole new device).

Smart phones and the replaceable consumer electronics of their ilk match the frustration that Herbert Read evoked in his essay To Hell With Culture wherein he observed:

“The whole of our capitalist culture is one immense veneer: a surface refinement hiding the cheapness and shoddiness at the heart of things.” (Read, 30)

Though it may seem that smart phones are perfect examples of the “veneer” and “surface refinement” the important point to keep track of is that this is a “cheapness and shoddiness” that is chosen for these devices and one that is projected regardless of how much it may actually be false. We have not yet reached the point at which smart phones literally stop working altogether when they reach their “trade in” date, and thus much of the “cheapness and shoddiness” is a set of attitudes of which consumers must be convinced. Read advances this concept further, recognizing that his stance may lead some to believe that he favors only a “culture of pots and pans” to which he offers the bold retort:

“I do not despise a culture of pots and pans, because, as I have already said, the best civilizations of the past may be judged by their pots and pans.” (Read, 30)

Smart phones, of course, are not pots and pans, but Read’s point should still give one pause as one considers the concept of obsolescence. For, if pots and pans are items with particular design values that were meant to be used and reused until no longer usable than devices like smart phones appear at the opposite end of the spectrum — as devices built for limited use before being discarded to be replaced by yet another vaguely different device. To further Read’s concern is to be willing to ask what will this mountain of e-waste (discarded phones galore) look like from an archeologist’s perspective? Especially if these archeologists are somehow able to detect that these devices were discarded long before their usefulness wore out.

At work within these notions of planned obsolescence is a certain hatred towards the culture of “pots and pans” that Read was so willing to defend. For the embrace of technology requires a society to be thoroughly and greedily obsessed not with stability or well-made goods but rather with that which is new. The success of planned obsolescence requires not simply the abandonment of still working devices, but the cultural belief that “new” equals good while “old” (which is really just “less new”) represents bad or backwards. Of this obsession Theodor Adorno wrote (in Minima Moralia):

“The cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new. The never-changing quality of machine-produced goods, the lattice of socialization that enmeshes and assimilates equally objects and the view of them, converts everything encountered into what was a fortuitous specimen of a species, the doppelganger of a model.” (Adorno, 250)

And this is a sentiment towards “the new” that should be viewed alongside another line from Adorno of relevance to this matter, namely:

“Rampant technology eliminates luxury, but not by declaring privilege a human right; rather, it does so by both raising the general standard of living and cutting off the possibility of fulfillment.” (Adorno, 127)

What this pair of quotations from Adorno reveals, apropos planned obsolescence, is the degree to which an obsession with new goods simply results in a failure to recognize that the “new” is almost indistinguishable from the “old,” whilst these new technological luxuries bind us to a system in which there can be no fulfillment distinct from continually trading in one device for a slightly newer model. While technological change may result in some new machines rendering older ones less useful, a system that puts all value on ever newer machines has much less to do with anything related to technology (as such) but is instead a signifier of the larger society. In order for planned obsolescence to reach the pitch of today, the original plan must have been obsolescence.

Smart phones do not get “pretty dumb after 2 yrs” unless they are designed to do so, and the real mental failure here is not on the part of the device but on the part of the society that thinks nothing of such impressive technological devices that we are convinced are so very shoddy. Ultimately, it is buying this technological propaganda – not the actual technology – that is pretty dumb.

Other Posts on Similar Topics

The Panoptic Con – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (1)

The Cell is the Phone – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (2)

Luddism for These Ludicrous Times

A Pale Rider Upon a Gunmetal Steed

“More Than Machinery, We Need Humanity”

Works Cited

Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.

Read, Herbert. To Hell With Culture. Schocken, 1963.

Slade, Giles. Made to Break. Harvard, 2006.

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

27 comments on “The Plan is Obsolescence – Defining Our Machine Wrought Maladies (3)

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  4. Andy Mueller
    September 24, 2013

    Thanks for the great read. Your article brings up some really good points on the precarious position the “top dog” wireless carriers are in these days. With all the MVNO options out in the open market, the traditional carriers are having to backpedal. As you said, it seems they are starting to draw at straws and breakdown as evidenced by T-mobile’s Jump plan and Verizon’s edge plans which are both major developments. The cost savings over using traditional wireless carriers is substantial, and offers a lot more buying power, and that is what has the traditional carries running scared. Speaking of which, if you are looking for the best smartphone plan in the business, it is on this page. Check out http://www.brringacell.com to get your very own Unlimited talk, text, and high-speed data plan for a very low $49 per month with no contracts or activation fees. Thanks again for the great read.

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  6. ravensmarch
    October 10, 2013

    What an excellent and properly depressing post. This whole notion of quick consumer-goods turn-over is down the back of an awful lot of the woes of the modern world, and it is very disheartening to see how completely indoctrinated people are to the concept. I’m very pleased with the 65-year-old pen I’m using today, but I notice with some dismay that there is no way to replace the battery in my son’s iPad when it inevitably begins to have trouble holding a charge– both high-end consumer communication products of their time, but such different notions of “product lifetime” as to stagger the imagination.

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  10. How To Get unlock iphone 4
    January 2, 2014

    Hey Theluddbrarian,
    Speaking of which, It’s OK for electronics consumers to fall behind the tech curve

    By DAMON DARLIN
    NEW YORK TIMES
    Article published – Jan 1, 2007

    The day after Christmas, prices on big-screen TVs went down and Raul Axtle pounced.
    Axtle and his 16-year-old son, Shaheen, headed to a Best Buy electronics store in Emeryville to buy the TV that Shaheen had decided was the perfect screen for displaying video games, a 42-inch Samsung liquid crystal display flat panel.
    It sold for $3,000 in April when it was introduced, but Axtle bought it for $1,600: $600 less than it was before Christmas.
    And, yes, he knows it will be even cheaper tomorrow.
    “Everything keeps coming down in price,” he said. “Next year, the TVs will be even better.”
    Paying less in the future for a device that can do more is now taken for granted when shopping for consumer electronics. Gone is last century’s theory of planned obsolescence in which manufacturers designed and built products that would quickly wear out and have to be replaced. Whether it is a big flat-screen TV or cell phone, handheld music player, digital camera, flash drive or external hard drive, these electronics do not usually wear out before they are replaced. Rather, the consumer may feel compelled to buy because the device does more, does it faster or does it better for less money than the original.
    “There is a fundamental shift that is taking place,” says Samir Bhavnani, research director at Current Analysis, a market research firm. “People thought a product would last 10 years. They keep it three years. They upgrade their cell phone every year.”
    But this new form of obsolescence can stymie the consumer because it makes little sense to buy now if the product will be cheaper tomorrow. Knowing when to buy becomes as important as knowing what to buy, particularly now through the Super Bowl on Feb. 4 as retailers and manufacturers knock prices down to extend the holiday buying season.
    Axtle, who already has a 51-inch Sony flat-panel TV in his “entertainment room,” thinks of TV like he did PCs more than a decade ago. “You’d get the most money could buy,” he said, but it wasn’t enough because the technology changed so quickly, making the PC obsolete in only a few years. “You couldn’t hope to get ahead,” he said.
    The best advice to consumers back then was to “future proof” your PC by buying the one with the most memory, the biggest hard drive and the fastest processor. Now, when people buy PCs there is less thought given to getting ahead of the technology curve.
    You cannot hope to keep pace with the technological change. You buy what you need when you need it – and when you can truly afford it.
    It might be useful to apply the PC lessons to TVs and other devices. The best prices for TVs right now are for a level of screen resolution called 720p, which is what the Axtles bought.
    The number is TV industry shorthand for the number of pixels, or dots, on the screen. More pixels make the picture more defined. So TVs with 1080p are better. But they are also more expensive. A 46-inch Sony liquid crystal display TV, for example, with 1080p resolution costs about 40 percent more than Sony’s 720p version. “If you buy 1080p, you pay a pretty high price premium,” Bhavnani said. “Ten years down the line, 1080p will still be fine and it will be cheaper.”
    But isn’t something even better coming? Yes, 1440p, an even higher level of resolution, although at this point only one maker, a large but obscure Taiwanese manufacturer, Chi Mei Optoelectronics, claims to have one ready for production in 2007.
    Do not get flummoxed thinking about ever-higher levels of resolution when you still have the faithful Magnavox with a cathode ray tube glowing in the living room.
    Stan Glasgow, president of Sony’s electronics unit in the United States, says resolution will continue to improve, just like digital cameras take pictures with more megapixels or PCs come with ever-larger hard drives. “It will be a longtime coming,” he said of the 1440p standard. The basic point to remember is that in screens with a diagonal measurement of less than 60 inches, it makes little difference whether the TV is 720p or 1080p. That is because if your TV is 10 feet away or more, you cannot tell the difference, said Carlton Bale, an engineer and home theater consultant who runs a blog on big-screen TVs.
    His blog, http://www.carltonbale.com, has a useful chart that shows how close a TV has to be to the viewer before it makes a difference.
    Wishes

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