April 9, 2014

Planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption

Stuff isn't built to last anymore, whether it's cruddy pressboard furniture from IKEA that will flake off into a pile of shavings within 10 to 20 years, or an iPhone whose speed has been crippled by an "upgrade" to the operating system that overwhelms it.

And yet, as the popularity of IKEA and Apple testify, people these days not only don't mind how disposable their purchases are — they are eager to feel another endorphin rush from throwing out the old and buying up the new, like a woman who changes her hairdo every three months.

Sadly, you see the same treadmill consumerism at Walmart and Sears, where everyone wants to step up their game, upgrade their rig, etc. It's not just the elites who are effete. Working-class people today are not the honest, making-do folks from a John Cougar Mellencamp song. They act just as entitled, discontent, and in-need of cheap junk from China as the rest of the social pyramid.

So, upper or lower class, Americans today don't give a shit if their stuff is unusable in five or ten years. Indeed, that's the way they like it.

Usually "planned obsolescence" is talked about as a supply-side thing, with the producers scheming to trick us into buying things that will be no good before long. But consumers notice that kind of thing, and by now that awareness is so widespread that all you have to do is say "not built to last," and everyone nods along. Notice: they do not stop buying all this shoddy crap, rather they grudgingly accept the nuisance as the small price they have to pay to enjoy the larger benefit of stepping up their game and upgrading their rig, feeling that heady rush more frequently.

This is a sorely under-appreciated source of how crappy things are today. You don't want to think of your fellow Americans as feeding it through their own self-absorbed consumer behavior, and would rather pin it all on the greedy stockholders, managers, marketers, and so on. But those guys can't sell an entire nation what it doesn't want to buy. Same with immigration — you can blame large-scale farm-owners, but what about the folks you know who use a housecleaning service, lawncare / landscaping service, or construction service that's almost certainly employing cheap illegal labor?

The Arts and Crafts movement took root in the late Victorian period, as status-striving and inequality were rising toward their peak of the WWI years. The standard story is similar to today's, where the shoddiness of stuff at the time was blamed on mass production techniques introduced by the Industrial Revolution — something on the supply side, at any rate. Given today's parallels, I'm more inclined to blame airheaded Victorian strivers for spreading the throwaway mindset. Only with such a docile consumer base could the industrialists flood the market with cheap junk.

At the other end, it's striking how sturdy and long-lasting stuff is from the nadir of status-striving and inequality during the 1960s and '70s. Especially for mature industries that can be fairly compared across long stretches of time — like furniture. Those Archie Bunker chairs, cherry dressers, and "granny squares" Afghan blankets are still in wide circulation at thrift stores, and have always been. The "thrift store look" from today is about the same as it was 20 years ago.

For some reason, IKEA futons and plastic rolling cabinets from the Container Store are not making their way in, and likely never will. Nobody has any use for that, and it's going straight in the trash.


  1. I think a lot of what you say is true here. I also think the cheap stuff is all most people think they can afford at this point. Also perhaps there is a greater marketing presence amongst the Ikeas and Wal-Marts of the world.

  2. Another aspect of most people not giving a damn is that the middle tier of quality has dropped out for most things. There's a whole bunch of shoddy junk available for the mass audience who just wants to feel the endorphin rush of buying and installing something new, and a niche of obscenely expensive but sturdy / well crafted stuff for the handful of folks who still want it.

    It's depressing to see how ubiquitous those roll-y plastic cabinets are in middle-class homes, when 40 or so years ago they would have had solid wood nightstands or end tables with whatever storage space was needed.

  3. Very good point. I know part of what is ailing shopping malls now is the lack of middle ground, so to speak. People either want things dirt cheap or they want Nordstrom's. I'm envious of my brother, because his father-in-law can make all this beautiful furniture for them for virtually nothing.

  4. FWG, go to antique stores in any regular town. Furniture, especially vintage, is going to cost about the same though often cheaper than new, low-end stuff. Or if you have more patience than money, estate sales and auctions. Often, your local auction houses post pictures online which are helpful. If your fleamarkets are large enough, they're alright, but furniture is less commonly seen as it is a bear to pack and unpack.

  5. There are two factors at play.

    First - people expect their incomes to significantly rise. Thus, everything is a stopgap measure. Most people would be horrified to imagine that their life thirty years from now will at all resemble their current life. Thus, they don't think about what the end point of purchasing will be - they'll worry about that once they have infinite money at some distant point in the future.

    Second - people are more self-conscious and feel the need to own absolutely everything worth owning. When you first strike out on your own, if you're spending an excessive portion of your income on rent (you are), you'll "only" have a few thousand dollars a year in discretionary income to spend on things like furnishings. Thus, to have a "complete" looking room (as you don't want to be embarrassed in front of the house guests you aren't having over), you need to make significant compromises in quality in order to finish your furnishings.

    The way you beat this is, unfortunately, through even more neuroticism by making a list of everything you want to own and getting a permanently serviceable version of each of those things whenever you have discretionary income. It takes a year or two of having unbalanced possessions (unless you're making a very solid income), but it's the only way through. If you didn't over-think it you'll just end up doing what everyone else is doing. Such is the poison of a culture.

  6. Thanks Dahlia! I've missed your contributions around here.

  7. Sublate - your post rings very true to me. Most people do expect their incomes to rise. It's depressing in some degree not to think this way. However, that's the situation I'm staring in the face if I don't go back to school.

    For me, my parents are much better off financially than me, as are my siblings. So I thought I had to have some of those same things. Now I have very little money and am pushing 30. So your second point applies to me to a certain degree. Also, it's hard for me to see saving up for a few months to purchase something like a couch. I would probably want to spend it on something else, lol.

  8. Planned obsolescence is a nonsense concept invented by modern marxists. In the original iterations of products, they were expensive and unattainable by most people. As time went on, cheaper, but lower quality versions of the same CONCEPT were developed, allowing the less rich to enjoy what previously only the rich could enjoy. Its a wonderful thing, and not worthy of complaint. Whats the fuss about wooden drawers if a plastic one gets the job done just as well? Certainly there are some aspects of consumer culture that are obnoxious and ridiculous. I work in retail, and see the absurd amount of crap we foist on people, such as holiday decorations. But by and large, the trend of cheaper, low quality items is a good thing.

  9. [quote]Another aspect of most people not giving a damn is that the middle tier of quality has dropped out for most things. There's a whole bunch of shoddy junk available for the mass audience who just wants to feel the endorphin rush of buying and installing something new, and a niche of obscenely expensive but sturdy / well crafted stuff for the handful of folks who still want it.[/quote]

    This is definitely true - the middle ground has been destroyed. It barely matters what stuff you are looking at; you can choose either walmart-cheapo-disposable or gucci-designer-expensive - but often even the expenisve stuff is not built to last, just to be disposable but for richer people to show status with different branding!

  10. Obsolescence happens whether you plan it or not. People don't want an old thing because an old thing no longer meets contemporary social or operational needs as well as a new thing. This was true 100 years ago, and its true today. I have a very sturdy, well-made second-generation Apple laptop I brought 22 years ago. It could have lasted 30 years. But all the sturdiness they built into it was a waste. The thing was obsolete in five years. An architect tells me that schools and hospitals that are being built today are being designed with the knowledge that they will be torn down within a decade or two -- not because they are bad, but because things change, institutional needs change. It's cheaper to build new than constantly retrofit the old. I work in a state-of-the-art building that was constructed at extravagant cost by a major defense contractor in the 1980s. At the time it was built, the company bragged the the infrastructure was built with the needs of the coming computer era in mind, so floors and walls were made to be easily wired and rewired. But the configuration of computer networks they anticipated does not match the actual evolution of computers as we use them today, so that whole infrastructure is more or less ignored. I personally prefer old things to new things for sentimental and aesthetic reasons. But our experience on the 20 and now 21st century tells us that things that are built to last eventually become a pain in the ass to maintain and perpetuate. It's not fair to saddle future generations with the cost of doing this. So as a favor to our progeny, we built things not to last.

  11. Great post.

    I buy many of my garden tools from antique shops. You can't beat the quality, unless you're willing to pay for Clarington Forge tools brought in from England. There isn't a serious digging, weeding or pruning tool left in the local hardware store... and I'm not going to count on crummy Made-In-China junk to keep me producing food during a crash.

    You're darn right, though. I've put two tools next to each other at some of my survival gardening talks: a cheap Chinese stamped spade and a solid forged spade. People are fascinated by how strong and well-made the good tool is... but when I tell them they sell for $82.00, they freak out. Look... you can use the $25.00 Chinese tool for a year before it breaks... or the $82.00 British tool for decades... and you still think the latter is expensive? MPAI

  12. "because things change, institutional needs change."

    Sure, but that's not what's going on in general. A couch still needs to comfortably support three butts and not break, fray the upholstery, or overheat the sitters. A cabinet with three drawers is supposed to hold stuff without falling apart (unlike the plastic roll-y types that have drooping drawers, leaning over when the weight builds up, pieces snapping off when handled, etc.). A blanket has to provide warmth while being somewhat lightweight and breathable. A hammer has to pound in nails and provide tactile feedback to the carpenter about how much force they're using and whether it should be adjusted. And so on.

    Most consumer electronics are driven by a throwaway mindset, not one of ever-evolving adaptability. Most new needs for the majority of consumers could be solved simply by adding a bit of memory, taking their desktop / laptop to Staples to have the dust blown out of it and prevent overheating, and so on. But why bother with that when you can you buy a whole new unit? Opening a box of Something New will be like an early Christmas!

    In fact, Apple is starting to build less and less adaptability into their products. Like preventing you from upgrading the RAM in the future by soldering them to the motherboard. Upgrading RAM was a solved problem up until now, so they didn't need to re-invent the wheel -- they are deliberately destroying the adaptability of mainstream consumer electronics.

    Imagine if all the guts under the hood of a car were soldered to the chassis or to each other, meaning you could never buy a new battery, replace the engine after it had taken on 200,000 miles, and so on.

    The way things are going, they'll start gluing the windshield wiper blades in place -- if the rubber wears down after a snowy winter, don't worry, now you get to splurge on.... A NEW CAR! Aw yeah, I've been looking for just the right excuse!

  13. Wow, that's a load of BS that Apple is stooping to doing that agnostic. My previous home-built windows PC lasted me for 11 years with all the functionality I needed until the end. Despite Microsoft discontinuing support, Windows XP works perfectly fine for web surfing, productivity tasks, and most games pre-2010. It'll likely be fine for those uses for years to come for those who take common sense security measures on the web. Such as using full anti-virus/malware protection, avoiding risk sites/"free" illegal downloads, and using still updated web browsers/online components. They make is sound like your computer will spontaneously explode if you log onto the net with XP, haha :D Baloney!

    Took full advantage of my computers adaptability. Had 1 failed hard-drive replaced along the way and cheaply upgraded the cpu/ram/video 4 years into it's use (when highest possible upgrades for my aging setup were discounted to rock bottom prices). Seems most people go through an average of 3 new computers in the same 11 year span with nary a functional advantage and thousands lost from their pocket book. Quickly their computer fails from lack of dusting as you say or crawls to a halt from a cesspool of malware infestations (often brought on by them "saving money" by illegally downloading entertainment and/or porn off torrents and by downloading "free" performance enhancement software which only infests their computer with more malware and tries to blackmail them into paying to get it fixed).

    If I wasn't a casual PC gamer I would have fixed it myself by replacing a couple blown capacitors on the motherboard for under 50 cents total. The same cheap fix is all that's need for a lot of other electronics. They shave a few cents off cost using lower life capacitors as part of their planned obsolescence for the devices I'd surmise. Replace a 10 cent capacitor in your 4 year old big screen LCD TV... pftt. nah just throw it out and buy a marginally more advanced $2000 LED model with "3d" effects you never use. haha that's how it goes!

  14. I'm not a technophile by any means. Give me a cheap laptop and I'm good. I do like a decent speaker/headphone system though, as I love my music.

    Evidently Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP yesterday, which my business still runs.

  15. Imagine if all the guts under the hood of a car were soldered to the chassis or to each other, meaning you could never buy a new battery, replace the engine after it had taken on 200,000 miles, and so on.

    Cars are a peculiar case when it comes to obsolescence. For the most part, they are much more durable today than in past decades. Not all that long ago it was a real challenge to get 100,000 miles out of a car, today it's completely routine to get twice as much.
    That's the good part. The bad part is that the unibody construction of almost all cars, combined with the hyperinflated prices for body parts, means that only the most superficial crash damage can be repaired. That's why cars that look barely damaged at all are being junked.




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