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.Â 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. [â€¦] The typical American gets a new one every 18 months. [â€¦] The problem, if that’s the right word for it, is that new devices perform more functions, fasterâ€”and people, as a result, want them. [â€¦] 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 themâ€”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.
After discussingÂ consumer signalling and Geoffrey Miller’s Spent in hisÂ Findings column (mentioned previously), readers of John Tierney’s Lab were asked,
List the ten most expensive things (products, services or experiences) that you have ever paid for (including houses, cars, university degrees, marriage ceremonies, divorce settlements and taxes). Then, list the ten items that you have ever bought that gave you the most happiness. Count how many items appear on both lists.
Dismissing for a moment the self-selection of the participants and the small sample size, the responses to the question are quite intriguing, showing you what consumer items are worth their cost in terms of ‘happiness’, and what items aren’t.
- Expensive items that don’t significantly contribute to happiness: marriage ceremonies, most cars, boats.
- Inexpensive items that do significantly contribute to happiness: meals with friends, alcohol, books, music, quality beds, pets, bicycles.
- Items that are both (expensive and contributory to overall happiness): education, housing, foreign travel, electronics and sports cars.
Dr Miller’s analysis of the experiment’s trends is worth reading, as is this previous post on the link between money and happiness.
Geoffrey Miller, author of the excellent Mating Mind, has recently released Spent; a look at consumerism and marketing through his lens of evolutionary psychology.
With an existing knowledge of evolutionary psychology theories the ideas in Miller’s latest will come as no surprise. These two reviews are still worth perusing, however:
Jonathan Gottschall provides a concise overview of Miller’s arguments:
From Veblen’s classic Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Miller appropriates the concept of “conspicuous consumption,” whereby people live and spend wastefully just to flaunt the fact that they can. From Darwin, Miller appropriates sexual selection theoryâ€””costly signaling theory” in modern parlanceâ€”whereby animals compete by sending signals of their underlying genetic quality. As with the gaudy displays of peacocks, purchasing decisions frequently represent attempts to advertise “fundamental biological virtues” like “bodily traits of health, fitness, fertility, youth, and attractiveness, and mental traits of intelligence and personality.
Robin Hanson deconstructs Spent into five critical points, offering some fantastic quotes:
- Signaling infuses most human activity.
- “Consumer capitalism” marketers trick us into using unreliable signals.
- We’d be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less.
- Laws aren’t the answer; let’s make better social norms.
- Let’s also adjust a consumption tax to compensate for side effects.
This looks like the crux of Spent:
We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.Â We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.Â Over the past few million years we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.Â Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.
Update: John Tierney has written a wonderful review of the book for The New York Times.