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Planned obsolescence comes for the headphone jack

Surprises are overrated. Well, probably not really, but such a shrugging sentiment seems warranted when it comes to the glitzy launch “events” held by tech companies. Lately, the things which are unveiled upon the stage are so clearly expected that it is challenging to even imagine a particular brand’s arch-loyalists getting too excited as the not really radical rumors turn out to be true. Such is certainly the case with Apple’s most recent launch event (the one which took place on Wednesday, September 8, 2016) – wherein the shocking reveal that the new iPhone would not have ye olde 3.5 mm headphone jack could only come as a shock to those who had been taking great care to avoid any and all news about the world of high-tech doodads (and the world of high-tech doodads qualifies as front-page news within a technological society). Granted, there will doubtlessly be some who don’t learn of this transition until they open their new iPhone 7 and search pointlessly for the place to plug in their headphones.

Apple has been having something of a rocky time lately. This is not meant to suggest that the company is deserving of sympathy or empathy (it isn’t), but Apple has recently been making headlines not based on anticipation for the “event” but because the European Union has said that the company owes in excess of 10 billion pounds in back taxes. Also, the Apple Watch (the big – though expected – unveiling from a previous launch) has not proved the game-changer or money maker that some hoped it would be – the Apple Watch did not unleash the age of the wearable in the way the iPhone unleashed the age of the smart phone. Furthermore, in the lead up to the launch of the iPhone 7 there have been many commentators grumbling and grousing, or at least expressing mild skepticism, about the disappearance of the headphone jack. And though the iPhone 7 features many of the standard sorts of upgrades that will likely make many Apple fans salivate (a better camera, more memory, it’s more resistant to the elements) all of that is likely to be overshadowed by the ensuing debate about the headphone jack being no more. There’s even an online petition demanding that Apple keep the headphone jack!

And yet…isn’t this all just much ado about nothing?

Obviously not. Much Ado About Nothing is a well-known play by William Shakespeare and the situation being discussed here has to do with contemporary technology.

So, rephrasing for clarity, is this actually a big deal? Does this actually matter?

Sure, it just depends on how you choose to approach the matter.

Launch events by tech companies – particularly when those companies sell actual devices (as opposed to just controlling platforms) – are largely about planned obsolescence. This is, of course, masked behind popular catchphrases like “innovation,” “disruption,” “upgrades,” “better [insert name of particular component,” and other terms that you have likely heard before (and which you will likely hear again). And though you are unlikely to find a tech executive standing on the stage and honestly saying “our business plan requires that you buy a new phone from us every eighteen months, and we’re working to make sure you do so, with any luck we’ll get that eighteen months down to twelve soon” – that is largely the subtext of what is being said. The launch of the iPhone 7 is not the death knell of the iPhone 6, but it certainly is for the iPhone 5 – and frankly it is putting the 6 on notice. Those who have tried to hang on to older devices know from frustrating experience that as device models change the software updates can wind up giving older device models a case of serious indigestion.

Of course, this is really just an issue for iPhone users. Right?

Alas, no.

And it is precisely here that Apple ditching the headphone jack is particularly important and actually noteworthy. For what it demonstrates is the way in which planned obsolescence ripples through technological society. The launch of the iPhone 7, thanks to the decision to remove the headphone jack, signals that Apple is making a lot more than just earlier models of the iPhone obsolete. Rather, Apple has decided that wired headphones are a thing of the past. While it is too early to tell whether this gamble will pay off (and it does seem that people will be able to connect their old headphones to the iPhone 7 thanks to some kind of adapter cable) it is quite possible that many a headphone manufacturer (which includes Apple) will also place their bets on a future of wireless headphones (and many companies are already making wireless headphones). In other words, by removing a jack from the new models of its popular smartphones Apple is marking as obsolete a huge variety of tech accessories. And before people get too upset about this “unprecedented move” it is worth recalling that in releasing new versions of their own devices Apple (and other device manufacturers) often create mountains of garbage beyond simply the now obsolete earlier models of their particular devices. Consider the cases that don’t fit a new device because the size has changed, or think of the mountains of cords and wires that no longer match the inputs. The iPhone 7 is a wonderful (if galling) opportunity to reflect upon the ways in which “innovation” is often synonymous with “this is going to create a lot of garbage.”

Yet, at risk of being accused of cynicism, it is questionable as to how much the frustration about the iPhone 7 lacking a headphone jack is particularly serious. And though some (including myself) would be thrilled for people to be starting to have a greater concern regarding e-waste and the ecological toll of planned obsolescence – it does not seem particularly controversial to expect that Apple’s bet will probably pay off in time. To put it differently, are people angry because old headphones are going to become e-waste? Or, are they angry because they spent upwards of one hundred dollars on a really good pair of headphones and now they’re going to have to buy new ones? It’s probably the latter situation more than the former. And to be honest about it headphones have largely been a fairly “throw away” accessory – they get lost, they break, they get hopelessly tangled, the cat chews through the cord – so people are fairly accustomed to re-buying headphones with more regularity than they’d probably like to admit (I confess, that I am guilty of this as well). And as for those who are genuinely angry because they recently bought a pair of expensive headphones…these people will probably be mollified by using the adapter cord and when they go to buy their next set of headphones they will probably find that the models on offer are all wireless (though this may mean that the price is about to come down on fancy “wired” headphones). Indeed, Apple making it clear that there will be an adapter cord is a brilliant way for the company to make this transition seem more gradual even as they create an opportunity to sell something else to iPhone users.

Make no mistake, planned obsolescence is a serious problem. Technological societies are creating mountains of toxic e-waste through their insatiable desire for more high-tech gizmos and a fresh Everest appears every time a tech company announces its newest device. One can hope that the “war over wireless headphones” will be commemorated as the event which caused people to start earnestly pushing back against planned obsolescence. But, alas, it probably isn’t worth putting too much hope in that.

If you are so inclined, go add your name to the petition telling Apple to keep the headphone jack. And (be warned, more cynicism ahead) it would be highly surprising if a petition could lead Apple to abandon plans that have already been set in motion (the headphone lacking phones are surely already being manufactured). Alas, Apple anticipates that many of the people signing that petition will eventually just buy the iPhone 7 anyways. Which is why we will find ourselves back in a similar situation in a year or so as we grumble about how the iPhone 8 will make something else obsolete.



Looking for a great book on planned obsolescence and e-waste? Check out Digital Rubbish by Jennifer Gabrys! Highly recommended!

Past ruminations on Apple…

Rotten to the core

Apple is not the Messiah

Who harvests the Apples?

Not all Apples are biodegradable

Placing bets and asking questions




About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Planned obsolescence comes for the headphone jack

  1. Phony_Email
    September 9, 2016

    It’s very hard for me not to think of Apple fanboys (and girls) as lemmings.

    Actually – “very hard” isn’t right. “Impossible” is better.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2016 by in Capitalism, Environment, Ethics, Smartphones, Technology and tagged , , , , , .

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