On being ... planned obsolescence

By Ingrid Sapona

I was visiting my sister in Texas recently. Pulling into her subdivision I couldn’t help notice how many houses had signs on their front lawn advertising a local roofer that had obviously been very active in her neighbourhood of late. Indeed, my sister commented on it, saying that because most homes in her neighbourhood are pretty much the same age, the roofs are all starting to go. Prudent planner that she is, she also mentioned that she’s started to budget for it, as she knows she’ll need one soon.

I first heard the term planned obsolescence about 25 years ago. I don’t remember the context in which it came up, but I remember being quite astounded by it. The way it was explained to me was that companies make conscious decisions about the quality and durability of parts they use to manufacture products based on the idea that they want people to have to replace things after a certain amount of time. In other words, some consider planned obsolescence as the science of engineering sales. That seems simply diabolical to me.

Call me naïve, but I just always assumed that companies would build things the absolute best they could and that if something broke or wore out, it was by accident -- not by design! I guess I figured that companies would be satisfied with sales to brand new customers, or to people who willing traded up for some new and improved version, rather than on repeat sales to customers as a result of planned obsolescence.

Or, I guess I expect companies to manufacture or create products that are so good they can’t be improved upon, in which case, to increase sales companies would follow the lead of Arm & Hammer® and come up with different uses for the same old product. After all, it seems quite obvious that at some point the Arm & Hammer® folks realized that if the average person only used baking soda for baking, customers would only need one or two boxes of it in their lifetime. So, to overcome what would have been a severely limited market, the company came up with other ingenious uses. (My favourite has to be the idea of promoting it as a drain deodorizer. That’s right – buy their product and pour it down the drain! Every time I hear that I think of my father and the countless times he complained that money spent on a given product was like pouring money down the drain. Good thing he isn’t around to hear of this latest “use” for baking soda!)

Aside from the new roofs in my sister’s neighborhood, lately I’ve found myself focusing a great deal on what I’m starting to see as a variation on the concept of planned obsolescence: the wearing out (or wearing down) of different parts of our body as we age.

I guess through my twenties and thirties I was in denial about the inevitability of certain physical changes “we all go through”. For example, changes to our eyes. Since grad school I’ve had glasses to correct for being slightly nearsighted. Because my prescription was quite mild, I was able to leave my glasses on, regardless of whether I needed to focus on something far or something near.

Of course I had always heard that as people get older they have more difficulty focusing on things nearby and that eventually we need reading glasses. But, given that I’m nearsighted to begin with, I figured I’d escape the need for reading glasses. Then, about a year ago I started noticing that my eyes have changed and now I have to take my glasses OFF to see things up close!

In effect, I’ve now got the opposite problem of so many friends of mine who are finding it hard to get used to putting glasses on. Since the onset of this new stage of my eye development (or, more accurately, degeneration), I’ve come to realize the real reason people complain so much about the changes to their eyes doesn’t have much to do with the actual changes to their vision. Instead, the irritability comes from the fact that the putting on and taking off of glasses exponentially increases the time you waste looking around for your glasses!

More recent problems I’ve had with my knees and back -- all of which I’m told are attributable to “getting old” as opposed to as a result of an accident or particular incident -- have really given me a glimpse into worse changes and potential problems coming down the pike. (None of which are too welcome, I might add.) But, always trying to apply new insights and perspective to things, I now realize that maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh in my damning of the application of planned obsolescence. After all, if I can come to accept the aches, pains and degeneration as a fact of life, I suppose it isn’t much of a stretch to see planned obsolescence as divinely inspired!

© 2007 Ingrid Sapona


Post a Comment

<< Home