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Planned obsolescence and our economy

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  3 May 2015 12:00 AM GMT

D. N. Bezboruah

The word obsolescence is the noun form of the adjective obsolete which means something that is no longer produced or used, or something that is out of date. It might strike my readers as odd that there should be something like planned obsolescence, although we have been victims of this phenomenon for almost a century. Planned obsolescence, also called built-in obsolescence in industrial design, is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life so that the product will become obsolete or unfashioble or no longer functiol after a certain period of time. Firms that pursue this strategy believe that the additiol sales revenue it creates more than offsets the additiol cost of research and development. The idea of planned obsolescence is credited to Alfred P. Sloane Jr., head of General Motors, who did some fast thinking when the automobile industry in the United States reached a point of saturation around 1924. Sloane mooted the idea of inducing people to buy a new car every year by bringing about annual model design changes, and sought to defend his policy by calling it “dymic obsolescence”. He is believed to have taken this idea from a bicycle manufacturer who had conceived the plan of coaxing bicycle owners to buy new models every year. Not everyone in America responded favourably to Sloane’s policy of “dymic obsolescence”. People were used to solidly built cars and other consumer durables that were expected to run for years. I saw a Ford T model car of 1916 vintage in the house of Robert Satin in New Jersey State that was in an immaculate state of maintence, even though it was driven almost every year whenever there was a vintage car rally. He also had a 1951 model Oldsmobile car with an eight-cylinder engine in immaculate condition. He also had two typewriters the 1910s vintage that were still working. These items give one the indisputable impression that manufacturers of the early 20th century had not been affected by the idea of planned obsolescence. They built things to last. Way back in 1949, six men of our family, including myself, were in a 1947 model Ford Mercury car that was involved in the kind of accident and that would have killed all the occupants if it had been a car manufactured in the present century. But apart from a small dent the size of a fingeril on the front bumper and a cracked window glass on the driver’s side as well as a dented front mudguard, the car suffered no injuries. And despite the fact that there were no seat belts in those days, none of the occupants even had a scratch. Clearly, Ford Motors in those post-World War II years did not believe in any kind of planned obsolescence. [Among the automobile manufacturers, Volkswagen made it very clear that they did not believe in planned obsolescence.]

In a sense, planned obsolescence can be regarded as being strongly anti-consumer because the policy obliges the consumer to buy a new consumer durable item, even though the existing one is still working very well due to careful maintence. He is obliged to buy a new item just because no spare parts are available any longer for the older model. The worst part of this planned obsolescence is that the lifespan attributed to a consumer durable item by its manufacturers has begun to get shorter and shorter with the passing years. Someone who might have spent around Rs 20,000 ten years ago on a microwave oven, must have discovered five years later that he could not get any spare parts to continue using it. This is because it is a prohibitively costly proposition for the manufacturers to go on manufacturing spare parts for older models. As such, they stop manufacturing spare parts for what they consider obsolete models after a new model of the product is launched. This is a cruel blow to the careful user of consumer durables. He may have used a product very carefully but some electronic component might have stopped functioning. So the item in question is no better than junk merely because the manufacturers have a policy of planned obsolescence that makes it impossible to get spare parts. This seems rather unfair to the consumer. The only thing he can do is to dump his microwave, toaster, blender or computer printer in the Brahmaputra. But since this is unlawful, it remains in his house as junk. The problem with many such products is that they have microprocessors with small components that are put together by a very different process of soldering. People do not go about using lead solder, resin and a soldering iron to put together such components any more. The put the components on a circuit board with the metal connecting points all protruding downwards. This board is then passed over a bath of molten lead which sticks on to the connectors. Sometimes one or two of these connectors may have failed to get properly soldered. Then the component involved cannot function properly. That is when we have an entire circuit board malfunctioning and disabling the product in question. If the product is three or four years old, one can forget about getting any spare parts at all. That is when we add to our collection of electronic junk.

The obsolescence time-span given to manufactured products is getting shorter every year. There was a time when one could not visualize the chromium plated parts of a car (like the bumpers, the grille and headlight rims) rusting even after 10 years. Around the 1960s, I began to notice that chromium plated parts on cars started rusting in a matter of five or six years. Likewise, other components of a car like its engine also had shorter lifespans. One needed to change cars more often—sometimes because they were not functiol any more, and at other times because one’s ‘status’ seemed to demand that cars were changed frequently. I have had a lot of people giving me not-so-subtle hints that my car should be changed just because it is nearly 12 years old, even though it still functions efficiently. These kind-hearted souls are thinking of my ‘status’.

The philosophy of planned obsolescence appears to be backed by that well-known slogan of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—“Ending is better than mending”. The slogan is assiduously endorsed by automobile workshops that no longer waste time on repairing what can be replaced. So the modus operandi of almost all automobile workshops is to abandon any thoughts of repairing a repairable part. Whatever is not functioning efficiently is promptly thrown out and replaced by a new part. Most automobile dealers do not lose any sleep over the fact that car owners have to pay ridiculous amounts to get their cars repaired. After all, someone else is footing the bill.

It is interesting to see how this policy of planned obsolescence is affecting the Indian economy. My own observation is that there is a world of difference between how it affects the urban and the rural populations. In the metropolitan cities with young people often earning six-figure salaries, the idea of ending being better than mending may work very well. It is a great time saver. They can afford to throw out products that develop glitches and buy new things. The scerio is very different in our villages. In rural India, saving money is far more crucial than saving time. Buying a consumer durable like a refrigerator, washing machine or a grinder-cum-blender on a visit to a city is a rare experience for rural folk and limited to those who have power supply in their villages. They cannot conceive of having to turn their purchases to junk every five years because of the obsolescence ‘planned’ by manufacturers. Any plan they are expected to see in such obsolescence can only be deemed diabolic. As for their highly paid city-bred cousins working in the corporate world and the government officers, the village folk generally regard them as great wasters. And this is not an unfair assessment. The urban lack of concern about dumping an expensive consumer durable two years after purchase or the uuthorized use of government vehicles to take children to school or the memsahib for shopping has already etched itself on the rural psyche as a facet of arrogant urban behaviour. The same reactions hold good for chief ministers who need around 20 vehicles in their cavalcade every time they stir out. The very possibility of such disparity in spending behaviour between the urban and the rural population can only serve to deepen the existing divide between the haves and the have-nots. Service providers in rural areas must work out a viable strategy to ensure that ending need not always be better than mending since the culture of mending will necessarily have to continue in the villages for some time.

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