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Planned obsolescence is a two dollar name for the act of deliberately building products not to last. Rather than creating something that we can use for as long as possible, companies make decisions that shorten an item’s life. This is often a strategic decision that turns a one-time customer into a repeat buyer.
Some of us are deeply bothered by this. We miss having the option to use the same TV for ten or twenty years. Then there are those of us who don’t particularly mind, for tech advances so rapidly now that we only want to keep a purchase around for a couple of years anyway. And it’s not like the necessary research is cheap.
Realistically, most of us fall somewhere in the middle. There are some products we tend to replace often, but there are others we would like to see last as long as possible. Just because you replace your laptop every year, that doesn’t mean you want to regularly replace your fridge as well.
However you feel about planned obsolescence, here are some strategies to extend the life of the things you own.
1. Repair What You Can
When a product isn’t working correctly, two options often come to mind: return or replace. After a certain amount of time, the option to return goes away. But you may not have to run to the store for a replacement. Sometimes you do have the option to repair what you’ve bought.
Many of today’s gadgets are designed to keep us out. They lack screws, are held together by glue, or have warranty policies that end if you tamper in any way. Some require parts that only the manufacturer knows where to find. But some gadgets aren’t that hard to get working again. If you aren’t yet familiar with iFixit.com, check it out. The site is a true resource.
After you grow accustomed to fixing your own things, you may feel inclined to join the growing number of advocates trying to enshrine our right to repair into law. You may want to do so even if you don’t get your hands dirty yourself. After all, how many of us prefer taking our cars somewhere other than the manufacturer for repairs?
2. Avoid the Latest Trends
Developers don’t expect a fitness band to stand the test of time. A smart thermostat may have some failsafes to keep the device working without an internet connection, but much of the functionality is gone. For cutting edge electronics, longevity often isn’t even an afterthought.
No one really knows what smart homes will look like five years from now. Many companies involved with creating that future are moving forward with the dream of locking us into their ecosystem, guaranteeing their economic success for the foreseaable future. They would prefer we buy their hardware and replace it every few years as new software updates render old models obsolete.
How many of the first-generation Android Wear watches are still in use? All of them cost enough to start a small collection of traditional watches (assuming you aren’t going for premium brands). My $250 Moto 360 became buggy in months, and the software it runs is now out of date. Besides, I can’t use it anyway now that I don’t run Google software on my phone.
Therein lies another risk of many “smart” products. You often can’t use them if you switch to an unsupported operating system or device. Want to install a custom ROM or simplify life with a flip phone? You will be stuck interacting with your smart devices from a PC, if you’re still able to manage them at all.
3. Make Your Own Gadgets
Many of the new products coming to market don’t offer new functionality — they offer a nice package. They’re presenting a way to do something that consumers can get up and running for minimal effort. If you’re willing to get your hands dirty, so to speak, you can obtain similar results without giving up your data or being left with a product that doesn’t work after a year.
The Raspberry Pi is so small and affordable that people are sticking them in places you would never cram a traditionally PC. You can even use one to create a wearable. With an Arduino kit and the right skills, you can create your own automated solutions. If you have kids, passing these skills onto them can set them on a more creative and inventive path through life. As for us adults, it’s not too late to make this change ourselves.
4. Reuse What You Have
While you’re making your own gadgets, take a look at the ones rotting away in your junk drawer. Many of those items are no longer good at serving their original purpose, but they can have a second life as something else.
A smartphone doesn’t need cellular service or updates to serve a sound recorder, remote control, or any number of creative uses. Try turning an extra tablet into a security camera. Have a phone lying around from before the smartphone era? You can use the parts to make a smartwatch! Admittedly, that takes a lot more effort than any of the other options I just listed, but that’s not a barrier if you’re interested enough.
5. Ditch Proprietary Standards
Phone chargers often outlive the phones they come with. That’s because most of them adopted the MicroUSB standard years ago, and they’re still useful today. An old phone charger can charge everything from your current phone to your Bluetooth speaker or wireless gamepad. This saves money and reduces waste.
Have you ever wondered why each laptop uses a different power adapter? There’s no functional reason for this. Companies simply see this as an opportunity to make more money. It may not matter if your last three laptops all came from the same manufacturer. If you want a second charger lying around, you have to buy a new one.
The industry hasn’t abandoned this tactic, but there is hope. A number of laptops now draw power via USB-C. Despite using the same plug, these cables aren’t already interchangeable. Nonetheless, USB-C powder adapters still have a better chance of working with your next laptop than some proprietary cable.
Don’t limit yourself to charging ports and cables. When given a choice, pursue the open standard. Look for memory storage, file formats, and accessories that don’t limit you to one device or brand.
6. Use Free and Open Source Software
Commercial apps typically have an expiration date. Once a developer stops actively supporting a piece of software, the clock starts ticking. It may work on the current version of your operating system, but bugs may appear once you move to the next release — if the program runs at all. Since the code is locked away, no one except the developer can tweak the software to run on newer machines. This problem is especially rampant on mobile devices, where apps can come and go overnight.
Free and open source software plays by a different rulebook. The source code that makes these programs run is available for anyone to look at. Even once a developer abandons a project, someone else can pick up the baton. Applications often spread to as many operating systems as possible, so you’re free to use whichever you want. FOSS apps free you from vendor lock-in. Your data and freedom to choose remain yours.
7. Shop Second-Hand
Thrift stores offer some of the cheapest prices on PCs you can find. Sure, this hardware is old, but it may be all you need to meet your needs. These are more than handy for pulling up information online and banging out a few documents. And they’re a great way to introduce kids to computing without stressing over whether they will damage something that costs you hundreds of dollars.
When you buy a used PC, that’s hardware saved from the landfill and given a new lease on life. Running Linux, that machine can last for many years to come. Old tech works pretty good second hand. Buying (or selling) some of the latest tech used can come with more risks.
8. Do Without
You can always opt out. Tired of feeling like you need to replace your TV every few years? Hate the idea of contributing a new smartphone to the landfill every few years? Hate the idea of putting apps on your wrist or wearing a tracker that won’t let you switch phones? Then don’t.
It really is that simple. Sure, depending on where you live, you can’t go without owning a car. But few gadgets, or even most appliances, are absolute essentials. You can live a satisfying life reading books, playing board games with friends, and learning how to paint. With just the smallest amount of planning, you don’t need a phone or app to go out to dinner. You can find the nearest park or movie theater without looking up the information from your car. Is your life really made better by being able to play videos merely by speaking the words out loud. Doesn’t a remote control already make it easy enough to waste all day in front of a screen?
Commercials would have us think that we can’t live without buying one more thing. Silicon Valley is packed with companies claiming to benefit society and improve the quality of human life. Is any of this true? The negative impacts of over-convenience and over-stimulation are not hard to find. You won’t just make a run around planned obsolescence by opting out, you may be making the kind of change that leads to a richer life.
Planned Obsolescence Isn’t Inherently Bad
But we do need to re-evaluate our expectations.
An old MP3 player from 2006 can still play music. An old cell phone can still place calls. An old newspaper or magazine still tells the news, even if it’s no longer current. But a seven-year old smartphone can’t complete most of its original functions. Is this truly a step forward for technology?
We buy houses expecting them to last for decades. You can learn how to fix and extend the life of different parts of your home simply by watching YouTube.
In the tech world, this is akin to buying or building a desktop PC. Due to the rate of technological change, your rig won’t last decades, but it can stay relevant longer than a laptop or tablet incapable of upgrades. Should we accept gadgets that offer the allure of new features but sacrifice the longevity and durability of the generation that came before them?
Even if you’re fine with replacing gadgets every other year, or you lease rather than own as a way to keep up with the latest models, consider the environmental price that the entire ecosystem pays to support our drive to turn nonrewable resources into throwaway products. Then there are the ethical questions raised by sweatshops built to satisfy our demand for low prices.
The solution may be one where we lease tech products from manufacturers through a monthly or yearly subscription. When new models are released, we trade in our existing devices back to the manufacturer, who then recycles the materials to make more devices. This way companies still bring in the high profits that incentivize them to push forward with bold, creative new tech. Plus the arrangement is more transparent about our lack of true ownership over many modern service-based products.
What do you do to resist planned obsolescence? What changes would you make to the way we invest in technological advancements? This is a complex topic, so I look forward to your insightful comments!
Image Credits: Olivier Le Moal/Shutterstock