Tag Archives: rob-walker

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.

The Transformative Power of a Narrative

Can a narrative attached to an everyday object increase its objective value? That was the question posed by Rob Walker (author of The New York Times‘ Consumed column) and Joshua Glenn (author of Taking Things Seriously) when they started the Significant Objects Project—an experiment designed to test whether a series of stories created about an object will increase its selling price.

After buying 100 “unremarkable” objects with an average price of just under $1.29 each, the two advertised them for sale alongside narratives created by volunteers. They then sold for a total of $3,612.51—more than 28 times their original price.

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational discusses the project and its findings:

The results may seem surprising, but this is actually something we see all the time. It’s the basic idea behind the endowment effect, the theory that once we own something, its value increases in our eyes. […] But ownership isn’t the only way to endow an object or service with meaning. You can also create value by investing time and effort into something (hence why we cherish those scraggly scarves we knit ourselves) or by knowing that someone else has (gifts fall under this category).

And then there’s the power of stories: spend a fantastic weekend somewhere, and no matter what you bring back […] you’ll value it immensely, simply because of its associations. This explains the findings of the Significant Objects Project, and also how other things like branding works.