The Demand for Product Obsolescence

Years ago (and still, for certain products) consumers decried the idea of planned product obsolescence in industrial design: the intentional engineering of products to have a limited useful life, such as with products produced with sealed-in batteries or fridges that will only function for seven years.

In recent years, however, the need for planned obsolescence has moved from the supply side to the demand side, with consumers themselves requiring that their gadgets don’t last so long that they become a burden: it’s desired functional obsolescence. Writing about the influence this has on our consumption habits, Rob Walker takes an interesting look at trends in product obsolescence and the rise of functional obsolescence as a demand-side phenomena rather than a supply-side one.

Consider that most ubiquitous gadget, the mobile phone. […] The typical American gets a new one every 18 months. […] The problem, if that’s the right word for it, is that new devices perform more functions, faster—and people, as a result, want them. […] The light-speed innovations in consumer electronics have turned many of us into serial replacers. A dealer in vintage home-entertainment equipment recently convinced me that it used to be possible to buy a top-notch stereo system that really would function admirably for decades. Imagine, by contrast, that tomorrow some company unveiled a cell phone guaranteed to last for 20 years. Who would genuinely want it? It’s not our devices that wear thin, it’s our patience with them.

The very real problem of electronic waste makes people like me hesitate to replace good-working-order possessions. Yet at the same time, we like to stay current with new technological innovations. So rather than provide evidence of some cynical corporate strategy, our gadgets’ minor malfunctions or disappointing features or unacceptably slow speeds largely provide an excuse to replace them—with a lighter laptop, a slimmer tablet, a clearer e-book reader. 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.