Sunday, November 2, 2008

Built-in Obsolescence

Originally, a means of ensuring that consumer goods like cars, refrigerators and computers are periodically thrown away and replaced by new models.
Companies have adopted a variety of strategies for inducing people to jettison old products. The crudest method - much used in the early and mid-twentieth century - involved the use of poor-quality components which were guaranteed to cause a breakdown shortly after the expiry of the warranty. Like many industrial innovations, this one is widely attributed to American enterprise - the world’s number one source of corrupt ingenuity in the service of private gain.
The danger of embedding imperfections into a product is that disenchanted consumers might switch to a competing supplier. Extended warranties - for which the buyer pays a premium - resolve this little difficulty. They also reinforce the case for shoddiness. Since no one likes paying for something they don’t need, a breakdown confirms that the warranty was worth the money.12
Other methods of ensuring obsolescence have joined the fray.
Changes of style make old products stale and new ones fresh and exciting. Expiry dates induce us to discard what we might otherwise still be inclined to use or consume. Manufacturers refuse to provide parts or to service goods they would rather see replaced by new purchases.
Sometimes producers use a cocktail of techniques to turn a product they trumpeted twelve months before as the quintessence of everything to which a sane member of the human the race might aspire into a tired disgrace worthy of the scrap-heap. Bud Eccles, the American consumer guru of the 90s, recalls how for years he received an annual brochure from America’s number one luxury car maker describing a farmer from the outback - a man that lived tough and bought tough and deserved his little perquisites - who exchanged his car for a new one every year. Twenty-five at the last count and still faithful to the world’s finest model the brochure proudly proclaimed. Eccles wrote to the Chief Executive Officer and secured an interview. “If the car needs changing every year, the conclusion must be that it’s no darned good,” he told the CEO. “And that farmer o’ yours is a goddamn fool for wastin’ his money on crap.”13 The CEO threatened Eccles with legal action and had him escorted from the premises.
Business executives and entrepreneurs aren’t alone, however, in their attachment to obsolescence. God also seems to approve the idea. Everything that lives wears out; and by the time we humans make our final departure, many of us have been obsolete for years.
Our creations - of which we make so much - likewise crumble or pass into desuetude. Philosophies, - modes of interpreting the world - may seem in their pomp to yield eternal truths - until the next generation refutes them. States - even “impregnable” empires - rise and fall. Species flourish for a time, only to succumb to the multiplicity of ways in which it is possible to become extinct. Our species will doubtless follow suit - if not at our own hand, then by some other means: perhaps a celestial catastrophe; or maybe because limits exist to the number of reproductive cycles available to any life form before it mutates into some other creature, or disappears altogether.14 In any case, the Earth seems set one day to expire, taking its creatures with it.15 If the astrophysicists are to be believed, not even the heavens are immune to exhaustion: the stars - our sun included, - will one day burn themselves out. “The cosmological eye, “ writes Barnaby, “in the end sees the varied, pulsating colours of life as no more than millisecond flashes of strange order in a dark and disordered night”.16
If we accept - as perhaps we must - that the universe will for all useful purposes come to an end, product obsolescence becomes no more than a reflection of a wider reality. Can we blame corporate executives for marketing goods of limited durability when God appears to have done the same with life?

12But note that repairs usually carry less than six months’ warranty, except for goods with second-hand value - such as cars - where lifetime warranties are cavalierly offered based on the probability that the owner will sell it within 12 months.
13Bud Eccles, “Memoirs of a Marketing Man,” unpublished monograph, University of Scunthorpe Business Faculty Library, 2000.
14Dinosaurs of the Cretaceous Period were not at all the same as their older cousins of the Triassic Period, 140 million years before.
15“ is no more than a glaze upon the delicate as the bloom on a peach.” comments Richard Fortey: “Life: An Unauthorized Biography”, London 1997, p 300.
16 Janet Barnaby, “Quarks, Quirks and the End of Life,” Sydney, 2013, p 72

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