Planned Obsolescence

As a confirmed penny pincher and rabid environmentalist, I’ve been really pissed the last few days. First, our three-year-old Sony Blu-ray Home Theater System suddenly quit playing Blu-ray movies though it took us awhile to figure that out. Since the system was relatively new, we assumed the movies we had rented were defective especially after we stuck in an old movie and it played without a problem. When the replacement had exactly the same problem, however, we decided the player was the problem.

A quick online search suggested that the first step was to upgrade the system since new versions won’t always play on older systems (though I thought our system seemed too new to be obsolete already.) We spent nearly a week trying to upgrade the system. Since the manual suggested we could simply upgrade over our wi-fi network, we tried to figure out how to connect to our home network. Turned out that only the higher-end models had wi-fi connectivity. Next we tried to download an update since one was available online. Naturally you had to have a Windows computer to do that. Leslie tried to do that from work, but the disk we ended up with wouldn’t boot.

About that time Leslie happened to mention that even the old Blu-ray discs wouldn’t play. Well, it made no sense to me that you’d suddenly need an upgrade to play discs you could play in the past. So, it was back to the internet where I discovered that there are actually two different lasers in Blu-ray players and that the one to run non-Blu-ray discs might still be working even though the blue laser was out. I was pretty convinced that was the problem and wasn’t willing to pay the price to have it repaired, especially since new systems offer advantages over our system.

We asked at the store if we could buy a Blu-ray Player that would use the speakers we had, but the clerk didn’t think that was possible. After our experience I wasn’t about to buy another Sony system, especially since they were no longer rated highly by Consumers Report. To make a long story short, we ended up buying a higher-rated Samsung system that was quite similar in layout. I spent most of the day disconnecting the old system and hooking up the new one trying to figure out the best placement of the speakers.

We inserted the disk that wouldn’t play and spent several hours enjoying a movie that we had waited nearly three weeks to see. It wasn’t until we tried to link the sound system to the television that we encountered a problem, a problem I spent the better part of two hours trying to solve. Leslie finally walked away, no longer willing to try to decipher a manual which never seemed to address our question. Since I consider myself computer-literate, I spent the next two hours doing what I usually do when I can’t figure out what to do, messing around until I stumble upon the answer I want. I did accidentally discover how to link the two together for a short while, but when I tried to do something else they wouldn’t synch again. However, once I knew that the actual wires were connected correctly, I was determined to figure out how to reconnect them through the controls. I did, and it is connected and working the next day.

The incident reminded me just how technically incompetent I am. I am nearly as obsolete as the recorders, phones, computers we constantly replace either because they fall behind technically or because they simply fail after a few years. My son or ten-year-old grandson could probably have punched in the correct code instantly.

It didn’t improve my mood when later that same evening Leslie complained that the microwave wouldn’t heat her cup of tea. I was sure that she must have punched the wrong button somehow. Nope. It nearly pushed my buttons, but it wouldn’t work. It’s only five years old, half the age of the on-the-counter model we’d junked when we moved because the new house had one built-in above the stove. Outraged, I checked online, and it said that new microwaves, on average, last from five to six years. The price to have a Sears repairman come out and replace the magnetron is almost more than the cost of a new one. I suppose Sears expects us to come back like all loyal customers and buy a shiny new one. I didn’t. I chose another brand with a ten-year warranty on the magnetron.

We moved into this relatively new house about seven years ago. In that time we’ve replaced ever appliance except the refrigerator, and that has had to be repaired twice. We replaced the furnace, the water heater, the dishwasher, the washing machine and dryer, the television, the DVD player, not to mention an endless string electronic devices. I lived in my previous house thirty years and never replaced a single one of those appliances. Of course, retailers remind you that the new appliances are much better, or, at the very least, more energy-efficient. I’m not convinced. First, I define a good appliance as one that is well-built and lasts a long time. The energy it takes to produce these major appliances and the energy used to recycle them, if they don’t end up in massive garbage dumps, is never mentioned in the equation.

Planned obsolescence. It keeps our economy running smoothly and ensures company profits, though the high number of big-name companies that have failed in the last few years should make stock holders question that argument. They argue it’s necessary for employment, though unemployment has never been higher in America.

I don’t know about you, but I get excited about buying something I’ve never had, something I’ve wanted a long time but couldn’t afford until now. I don’t mind paying a high price for a good product. I’ve got Swiss shop tools I’ve used for thirty years that I still love and would never replace. I think my Canon EOS ID is worth every penny of the outrageous amount I paid for it and haven’t regretted buying it for a second despite the sacrifices I had to make to pay for it.

I hate replacing something I purchased a few years ago, especially when I discover I have no use for the “new innovations,” innovations that more often than not require an additional investment or incur a monthly charge. I suspect the greatest cost of a throw-away society is a growing alienation from the things we own. And in America today you are the things you own, or so advertisers would like us to believe.

6 thoughts on “Planned Obsolescence

  1. I hate replacing too, but it is true that the newer appliances use less energy than the older ones. I sure hope I don’t have as much trouble with my new phone when I get it later in the week. I had a Maytag washer and drier set that lasted 22 years with no service calls at all. I am certain that the ones I replaced them with will never last that long.

    • I doubt that they will last 22 years, either, kenju, though the HE washers seem much more energy efficient. Not so sure about the dryers, though the wash machines seem to spin the clothes much drier.

  2. Oh dear Loren – much of this could have been written by me! What really annoys me is that quite small electrical things like kettles, toasters and irons are no longer seen as repairabl;e, merely replaceable.

    • For me, it’s more often hand tools. I usually try not to buy cheap hand tools in hopes that they will last longer, but even “professional” tools nowdays seem to have a very short life. I imagine true professionals have to replace them at frightening rates, either that or they have better sources for tools than the rest of us do.

  3. The same principle of making the consumer buy more seems to be at work in non-appliances too. I used to be able to purchase tablets of drawing paper with 90 or more sheets. But I recently discovered that my local art store was only selling tablets of 24 sheets — yet at the same price as the old tablets of 90 or more. I don’t know if that was just that one store, or if is everyone these days, but it seems to me to, in a sense, be on the same level as creating appliances that don’t last nearly as long as their predecessors. Not to mention it amounts to a remarkable price increase.

    • In a sense, it’s more like renting a product than owning. I’m paying about ten dollars a month to rent a microwave, and once i”m renting it it becomes “necessary.”

      I’m going through “microwave withdrawal” while I wait for the new one to be delivered.

      Adobe is pushing hard to make people rent their aps rather than buy them. There are new tools you can only get in the online version of CSS.

What do you think?