The untold story of planned obsolescence

Did you know that the lifetime of light bulbs once used to last for more than 2500 hours and was reduced – on purpose – to just 1000 hours? Did you know that nylon stockings once used to be that stable that you could even use them as tow rope for cars and its quality was reduced just to make sure that you will soon need a new one? Did you know that you might have a tiny little chip inside your printer that was just placed there so that your device will “break” after a predefined number of printed pages thereby assuring that you buy a new one? Did you know that Apple originally did not intend to offer any battery exchange service for their iPods/iPhones/iPads just to enable you to continuously contribute to the growth of this corporation?

This strategy was maybe first thought through already in the 19th century and later on for example motivated by Bernhard London in 1932 in his paper “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”. The intentional design and manufacturing of products with a limited lifespan to assure repeated purchases is denoted as “planned/programmed obsolescence” and we are all or at least most of us upright and thoroughly participating in this doubtful endeavor. Or did you not recently think about buying a new mobile phone / computer / car / clothes / … because your old one unexpectedly died or just because of this very cool new feature that you oh so badly need?

The Light Bulb Conspiracy
"The Light Bulb Conspiracy" by Cosima Dannoritzer

A really well done documentary that provides a comprehensive overview about and a detailed insight into this topic recently aired on Arte and other European television networks. It is entitled “The Light Bulb Conspiracy – The untold story of planned obsolescence” (aka “Pyramids of Waste”, DE: “Kaufen für die Müllhalde”, FR: “Prêt à jeter”, ES: “Comprar, tirar, comprar”) and is a French/Spanish production directed by Cosima Dannoritzer. Recordings of the movie have been uploaded to various video portals, for example currently available on YouTube in EN/International with Norwegian subtitles, DE, FR and ES. Just the official TV and Internet broadcasts were viewed by over 2,500,000 people.

If you like to follow up on some of the documentary’s content, here are the links: The light bulb at the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department can be watched here via web cam. Wikipedia has some more information on the Phoebus cartel in EN and DE. The referenced clip about the tremendous waste of ink by inkjet printers can be found at Atomic Shrimp: “The Dirty Little Secret Of Inkjet Printers”. The software to reset the page counter of various Epson printers can be found here: SSC Service Utility for Epson Stylus Printers. The people that made “iPod’s Dirty Secret” are the Neistat Brothers. The tough guy from Ghana that collects evidences at the dumping grounds to identify the orignators of electric waste is Mike Anane and he also contributed to the report “Poisoning the poor – Electronic waste in Ghana” issued by Greenpeace.

That planned obsolescence may be needed or even is substantial to appease the ever-growing hunger to achieve continuous and distinct economic growth that is natural to nations with advanced economies aka developed (?) countries is one part. The past and present is comprised of numerous advocates and supporters with well-engineered argumentations in favor of this business strategy. But even the ultimate argument gets immediately and indisputably absurd and unreasonable when it comes to the thereby produced waste – the other part of planned obsolescence. “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” quite clearly showed where this leads to and especially where all the resulting waste is dumped.

Let’s keep that in mind while impatiently waiting for the release of the next generation of the iPhone …

Trailer “The Light Bulb Conspiracy”

[written and directed by Cosima Dannoritzer]

9 thoughts on “The untold story of planned obsolescence

  1. The problem isn’t just the garbage. It is a waste of wealth. I would also argue that it isn’t good for “economic growth”, but really “commerce growth” (using the words as they mean literally; not there common use). If a device breaks and it gets replaced (by the same one; e.g. light bulbs and printers are nearly the same in every device generation) we are not wealthier nor did our economic do anything but use and distribute resources.

    1. I totally agree with you blauebirke. The waste of wealth and the unreasonable consumption of resources is critical especially in case its quantity is limited. And as far as I know, the world we are living in is just finite.

    2. I think you’re missing the point. You buy that new light bulb or printer, the same kind you had yesterday, and you’ve increased the wealth of the producer and their shareholders. Our economy is based on financial movement – money has to be transferred continuously or the system breaks down.

    1. Cosima, thanks for the link as I wasn’t sure where to find the official Web site. Good luck in the film festivals … you should bring home some awards 😉 And I am looking forward to the release of the official DVD.

  2. Hi,

    Here is a solution to planned obsolescence in computers and related equipment. A computer technician discovered a fix that seems to prove that nearly EVERY problem you have ever experienced with your computer equipment was intentionally built-in (programmed) into it.

    The following website lists 54 common symptoms resolved by his fix. Use this fix or continue buying new every time the authors of planned obsolescence want you to while you send your money to China.

    By the way, if you continue to buy new when your computer fails, you are simply rewarding the people who put planned obsolescence in your IT equipment in the first place. Be smart. Don’t get burned by planned obsolescence again.

    Thanks for your time. Please spread the word.

  3. In-built obsolescence not only has the stated untoward economic effects aptly stated by previous commenters, but also – by increasing the overall garbage – it damages your health and well-being through the environment, and that of the nations where the garbage is dumped. In short, it is damaging the planet.
    The solution canot rely solely on the good will of individual citizens, however educational programs are welcomed and awareness campaigns are useful. Proper laws should be required by the public opinion and passed that COMPEL manifacturers to STATE WHAT KIND OF OBSOLESCENCE has been introduced in the product. This should create a common awareness of the problem, a condition to pass new and more restrictive laws, which PROHIBIT any kind of obsolescence, and SEVERELY SANCTION trenspassing producers.

  4. Planned obsolescence creates GDP growth the same way that car crashes do. When cars crash, they get replaced or repaired and people if injured get “repaired”. Money is spent just to restore the status quo.

    When your iPhone is on life support because it’s almost time for the new one to come out, if you could replace the battery yourself, you’d save $500 on the new phone you wouldn’t need. That’s $500 less GDP. If you spent $20 and 5 minutes to swap the battery, you could spend the $480 on another item or service.

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