Technology September 2011

Replacement Therapy

Why our gadgets can’t wear out fast enough
Mitch Blunt

An inexplicable line has appeared on the screen of my iPod, and I can’t get rid of it. The battery life has been flagging lately, too. Plus, the thing won’t sync properly with anymore. Yet none of these problems—and the device mortality they portend—bother me. On the contrary, I’m practically cheering them on, because my iPod is a “classic” model from 2007, and for years I’ve coveted an iPod touch. Spending money to replace something that works would make me feel wasteful and guilty. So I poke at my iPod with the perverse hope that it won’t respond. I have a gadget death wish.

Possibly you know the feeling. When I’ve confessed to others my enthusiasm for the breakdown of an expensive, enjoyable product, I’ve encountered surprising reinforcement. One friend said the debut of the white iPhone had her wishing a cruel fate upon her current smart phone. Another acquaintance, who blogs actively about cool new tech toys, confessed his constant yearning for one or another of his electronic possessions to require untimely replacement. A third described himself as “delighted” when his wife accidentally dunked his old iPhone in the Atlantic, “giving me the excuse I needed to get a 3G.”

We’re all familiar with the sinister idea of “planned obsolescence,” a corporate strategy of supplying the market with products specifically built not to last. Consumer-culture critic Annie Leonard describes such items as “designed for the dump”; she recounts reading industrial-design journals from the 1950s in which designers “actually discuss how fast can they make stuff break” and still leave consumers with “enough faith in the product to go out and buy another one.” When that doesn’t work, she says, the market suckers us with aesthetic tweaks that have no impact on functionality: the taller tail fins and shorter skirts of “perceived obsolescence.”

But the emerging prevalence—anecdotally, at least—of the gadget death wish suggests an intriguing possibility: where electronic gizmos are concerned, product obsolescence is becoming a demand-side phenomenon.

Consider that most ubiquitous gadget, the mobile phone. According to J.D. Power and Associates, the typical American gets a new one every 18 months. This is not because of some time bomb in the design that renders a phone useless over that span. ReCellular, a big recycler and reseller of mobiles, collects millions of unwanted phones every year. Joe McKeown, the company’s vice president of marketing and communications, told me that many are several years old—not because they’ve been in use all that time, but because, after being replaced, they were dumped in desk drawers and forgotten. But despite this, only 18 percent of the phones the company collects are “beyond economic repair,” and thus broken down to recyclable parts. The rest either work fine or can easily be refurbished and put right back into the marketplace. The problem, if that’s the right word for it, is that new devices perform more functions, faster—and people, as a result, want them.

This demand-side obsolescence does not extend to all products, of course. I have no death wish, for example, for the three-year-old dishwasher now in terminal condition in my kitchen. But the light-speed innovations in consumer electronics have turned many of us into serial replacers. A dealer in vintage home-entertainment equipment recently convinced me that it used to be possible to buy a top-notch stereo system that really would function admirably for decades. Imagine, by contrast, that tomorrow some company unveiled a cell phone guaranteed to last for 20 years. Who would genuinely want it? It’s not our devices that wear thin, it’s our patience with them.

The very real problem of electronic waste makes people like me hesitate to replace good-working-order possessions. Yet at the same time, we like to stay current with new technological innovations. So rather than provide evidence of some cynical corporate strategy, our gadgets’ minor malfunctions or disappointing features or unacceptably slow speeds largely provide an excuse to replace them—with a lighter laptop, a slimmer tablet, a clearer e-book reader. Obsolescence isn’t something companies are forcing on us. It’s progress, and it’s something we pretty much demand. As usual, the market gives us exactly what we want.

Presented by

Rob Walker is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer, and is the author of Buying In. He is a co-founder of Significant Objects, the Unconsumption project and The Hypothetical Development Organization.

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