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.