Planned Obsolescence

In yesterday’s post I have summarized the core idea behind my understanding of moral design, and by extension all good design, which is that any work that we wish to matter and to last must aim at furthering our movement towards our ultimate purpose, a purpose which itself must remain in place as we make progress and not shift ever further away. I’ve alluded to the nature of that purpose, which is roughly the same in either religion or philosophy, and that is our advancement towards the good life, i.e. a moral life. The understanding and specifics of the good life vary across faiths and philosophies, but the core idea is the same.

Today’s culture revolves around something else entirely, and the work that most people produce has only one master called demand. Success is measured by money, and money is gained by producing things that the market will buy. In some cases, demand itself is generated before the good is produced so that there will be enough of a market for it. In this world, design is used as a tool to stimulate demand by means of planned obsolescence, a method of constantly changing the style and features of your product to keep people buying the very latest model, even if their old one is still perfectly operational.

What do people gain from throwing away model A for model B? What wealth is gained? None, but what they do gain is a relief from that artificial desire that the market has kindled in their hearts because now they can rest content knowing that they have the latest and greatest and that somehow their owning of it helps make their life more complete. But satisfying these transient desires does not come without cost because most goods that we consume today in the West are produced in the East, under poor working conditions and for little pay.

A reader may say that while the inequality of labour is indeed being exploited for gain in the West, the fact that we do produce goods in the East gives the people there jobs that they would not otherwise have. This is true but also irrelevant because the reason that those people work in poor conditions is because their labour is being spent on producing items of luxury for the West, goods that will become obsolete in a month’s time due to our perverted sense of worth, and not on producing goods that can sustain them and their country. In effect, rather than being employed on the production of goods that will improve their country’s infrastructure and support their lives, those workers take the few dollars they can get from the West to produce and ship what is essentially delayed rubbish – rubbish not because of a good’s true worth, but of the warped view of its value that our businesses keep promoting.

Design plays an integral role in this scheme by constantly varying the design and style of products in order to make the older ones look outdated; and worse, the products themselves may not even be made to last. The worst part about this scheme is that the new designs are not even bad, they’re often good looking and tend to be coupled with incremental updates to the underlying technology that push the complete package a little bit ahead of what came before it. In this way, there’s an illusion of progress, of movement in the right direction, when in practice all we do is travel around a wheel of consumption and obsolescence.

June 2012