Planned Obsolescence

Margaret Atkins MunroLet's Talk About MoneyLeave a Comment

The holiday season kicked off in our family, as it always does, with Thanksgiving and our wedding anniversary. Now, having just returned from a long weekend away with my beloved, I’m making my lists for the annual giftapalooza, figuring out what to buy, and what to avoid, for all my special people.

While a 15th anniversary is certainly noteworthy, I keep a staggeringly long list in my head of other memorable dates relating to my family: the first time Colin and I met, our first official date, the day we bought our first house, Jacob’s first steps, first words, first day of school. Crowding in right beside those are memories of other firsts: stereo, car, computer. First purchases are a rite of passage as we become viable consumers and the quarry of advertisers. Buying once is never enough. The passage of time has taught me that acquisitions are transient; the time lapse between purchase and replacement lessens with each upgrade. I bought my first laptop in 2000 and officially buried it only last week. Its successor, purchased three years later bit the dust within five years.

My netbook, I suspect, is disposable as technology continues to accelerate and evolve. The plasma television we purchased two years ago is already showing its age, as is the entire home entertainment system that came with it. And our son’s video game system, also two years old and cutting edge when he received it, is already creaking and inadequate for his purposes (or so he says). Vinyl, we all know, is dead, as are 8-tracks and cassettes, but apparently CDs and DVDs are on life-support, replaced first by MP3, now MP4, and streaming video.

Though I’ve stayed far ahead in some areas, I’ve also missed entire technologies – I don’t Tweet, I can’t text, and I think that Bluetooth devices make me look like the Borg. But I am addicted to my IPod Touch, and this netbook and my other computers are attached to me with something like an umbilicus.

The financial tally? On closer inspection, I find that we are paying as much per year for our satellite dish as we did for the television itself, without any movie channels and no Pay-Per-View events. My combined phone bill for home, office, DSL, 3 cells, and VOIP equals in one month what I used to pay for one year of phone service in my first apartment. The fixed cost of equipment may stay the same or even drop, but the price of ongoing support service goes up and up.

As I update and upgrade, I’m aware that the technologies themselves are inventive and extraordinarily seductive, the marketing campaigns ingenious. If I want the latest accounting software, I must have appropriate hardware to go with it, and my operating system must be state-of-the-art in order to marry the two. It’s not that my old computers gave up the ghost, they simply became obsolete.

Planned obsolescence may have begun in the business world, and in highly technical areas, but it now extends into all corners of our lives. It impacts not only my tax practice, but my son’s computer that isn’t equipped to run the games he buys, or the person whose perfectly good analog television no longer works because there is no more analog signal. For that matter, when did you last use your VCR?

This problem of planned obsolescence is not new; one need only study the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed mechanical looms in order to preserve their cottage weaving industry. Sadly, like the Luddites, those who dig in their heels against new technologies are often trampled by it. This is not to say that you cannot live without a computer or television; opting to do so, though, definitely places you outside of the mainstream. And, even should you choose to go that route, many of the industries you’ve come to rely on are either adapting to the new technologies, or falling by the wayside; one need only look at the news industry, and its move from away from paper towards Internet access.

As I look at my list of gifts to buy this season, which includes a Blu-Ray player, an IPod Touch, and a 120gb hard drive for a video game system, I see that each of these items replaces something that only a few years ago was either state of the art, or completely unnecessary and frivolous. But this family, like so many others, has moved with the times – items that once seemed like a luxury are quickly becoming perceived necessities, and the desire to treat our loved ones to some of life’s little luxuries pushes us to buy, and extend, more.

We’re trapped in a trap of our own making. Like a rat treading on an increasingly complex treadmill adorned with so many pretty bells and whistles, I’m not sure I’m able to, even if I wanted to, get off. Fortunately, running right beside me is my honey who, unlike the treadmill we’re on, only improves with age.