Planned Obsolescence Considered Beneficial: Towards Digital Freedom of Movement

5. April 2020

Planned obsolescence is a topic that is easy to be angry about. Companies consciously building products in a way so that they break and we have to buy new ones — how dare they? But of course, it is not quite that easy.

Last night, after brushing our teeth, my girlfriend Sarah and I noticed that the blue color that had been added to some of the bristles on our toothbrushes had faded. Apparently this tells you that it is time to replace your brush head. Apart from the lack of blue color however our brushes looked perfectly fine — not like they needed to be replaced at all. Electronic toothbrushes are known to follow the razor and blades model of pricing, so we were wary: should we let the company who makes most of its money off of brush heads bully us into throwing away the ones that seemed ok to us and buy new ones? We didn’t.

My first personal experience of planned obsolescence happened in such an imposing manner, that it has left its mark. In 2011 my parents’ Epson printer stopped working. There were two nervously flashing lights and a mysterious, vague error message saying that some part wasn’t functioning. My dad called the company’s support hotline Oh, the innocence., who told him that while this was a fixable hardware disfunction, replacing the part would cost about 120€ and that therefore fixing it wasn’t worth it and that he should just get a new printer.

This could have been the end of the story, had I not, by sheer coincidence, a few days later been watching TV and stumbled upon the movie “The Light Bulb ConspiracyThe German title is “Kaufen für die Müllhalde” but my favorite is the French one: “Prêt-à-jeter”. This very movie single-handedly brought the topic of planned obsolescence into the public consciousness, at least in Europe. One of their examples? An Epson printer that suddenly refuses to print, with two nervously flashing lights and a mysterious, vague error message. In the movie they download a slightly dubious looking piece of software that resets the internal page counter of the printer — and suddenly the error disappears. Well, I had nothing to lose, my parents’ printer was considered junk already, so I went onto some weird Russian site and downloaded “sscserve.exe” I absolutely recommend checking out this how-to guide, if only for nostalgic reasons.. I connected the printer, pressed a button in the software and just like that everything went back to normal. The printer went on to print happily and was in use without incidents for another couple of years.

As exasperating as these stories are, the whole picture is usually more complicated. Epson, of course, is quick to argue that the seemingly arbitrary limit is there to protect consumers: a part of the product that is known to wear out after a certain time might (!) actually wear out and start to leak ink. There is a point to be made that this is ridiculously bad design — why construct a part that is expected to wear out rather quickly in a way that makes it basically impossible to replace it Nevermind that it does not seem to be a problem to make this part — a tiny sponge — replaceable in more expensive corporate printers. and why not tell customers about this limit? Even when taking their excuse at face value Epson still looks bad.

In Defence of Tradeoffs

However their argument is not moot: There are often situations where designers have to balance out trade-offs against each other and simply optimizing to make a product as long-lasting as possible may not always be in the customer’s best interest. Take for example the often cited case of the life expectancy of light bulbs. It is arguably the most famous story of planned obsolescence, probably because the evidence seems so damning Remember the title of the movie I mentioned earlier?. It is well documented that in the mid-1920s the “Phoebus cartel”, a group of the largest light bulb manufacturers, came together and decided to artificially limit the lifespan of light bulbs to 1000 hours — even though 2500 hours were perfectly feasible. Infuriating! What is often left aside is the fact that the production of light bulbs follows a pretty simple trilemma: Longer life expectancy, higher brightness, lower power consumption — you can only pick two! A certain level of brightness in non-negotiable, so is longevity really that much more important than efficient use of power? If you do the math the answer is: no. A light bulb that lasts 150 times as long but uses 1.5 times as much power is going to end up costing you about 12 times as much. It could even be argued that it is more attractive to over-optimize for longevity because it is much easier to advertise with it: a lifespan 2500 hours is easier understood as a benefit than increased brightness per watt (compared to what?).

Similar arguments can be made about many of the product design decisions that are accused of being cases planned obsolescence nowadays. There are certain components who do have a limited life span by definition, like batteries. In these cases companies like Apple (and Apple in particular) are often scolded for brushing aside longevities little sibling, reparability. But it isn’t like reparability could suddenly be added without a cost. If devices are supposed to be ever thinner and lighter, while at the same time becoming faster and longer-lasting (here meaning the time until they need to be recharged) some tradeoffs have to be made. It comes down to a value decision. One can very well argue that reparability ought to be valued much higher — and I’d tend to agree! — but acting as if companies are simply making these decisions in spite is utterly reductionistic and creates false expectation regarding the complexity of decisions in product design and the incentives created by our current economic system. It is for example important to notice that there are other factors involved in making repair less attractive than just companies’ greed. Take the Baumol effect, which results in an extreme increase in the cost of services compared to that of goods. For further reading see Why Are the Prices So Damn High? and especially the two figures on this page.

Obsolescence in Digital Design

Leaving aside the feelings of your customers there is an obvious economic argument to be made in favor of shorter-lasting products. And if your customers are aware of it and know the “price” they pay for cheaper prices, what’s the harm? Well, the crucial argument is of course environmental. Even when leaving aside the amount of trash this line of thinking seems to approve of — just imagine my parents’ perfectly fine Epson printer as a big hunk of useless plastic thrown into some dump — the environmental cost of producing goods are astronomical. Longevity and reparability of physical goods are most fundamentally not questions of saving consumers’ money, they are questions of saving our planet.

This (very strong) line of argument assumes high marginal costs. But what happens in an environment with extremely low marginal cost? Let’s turn our attention to the digital world.

In the digital world the environmental argument carries little weight and the moral argument only holds when customers are left in the dark. Without these there is nothing inherently wrong with digital planned obsolescence. It is in fact used quite beneficially! As an example just think about the way many companies handle software pricing nowadays: as long as you pay a recurring fee you get updates and can access new features. Once you stop you can still use the version of the software that was the latest at that moment — you get to keep what you payed for! At the same time it is clear that there are strong incentives to continue paying: You want to profit from the latest features and older versions will eventually not be supported by newer operating systems any more. The model only works because the software vendor can count on older versions of their software becoming obsolete, giving customers ample reason to pay them continuously. Simultaneously users are treated fairly, with all the conditions clearly laid out from the beginning. The entire economic viability of this model, which strikes me as very fair, is founded on planned obsolescence.

One may accuse me of ontological sloppiness here — is what I just described really “planned obsolescence”? Well no, not in the way the term is technically used: The creators of the products did not specifically design a part of it to become outdated so that the product would be obsolete. But neither did it surprise anybody when that happened. The preliminarity of digital programs is not just a side-effect, it is in fact constitutive to the process of software creation: “[…] creating an algorithm unfolds in context through processes such as trial and error, play, collaboration, discussion and negotiation. They are ontogenetic in nature (always in a state of becoming), teased into being: edited, revised, deleted and restarted, shared with others, passing through multiple iterations stretched out over time and space. As a result, they are always somewhat uncertain, provisional and messy fragile accomplishments.”, writes Rob Kitchin Rob Kitchin: Thinking Critically About and Researching Algorithms. Understanding the term “planned” in a looser way, in the sense of “planned with”, I therefore am comfortable calling this planned obsolescence: it is predictable, expected and, most importantly, calculated with economically. The usual term to describe the phenomenon would probably be “technical obsolescence”, but it lacks the qualitative depth I am looking for.

Obsolescence in the digital space comes with all the economic benefits that the proponents of planned obsolescence have promised: There is a constant drive to improve products and introduce new features — a great benefit to users! It ought to be noted though that because the provisionality is inherent to software, it is not something that the creators of software can choose. Especially since software is always built on top of other software, there is a Domino effect: Because the underlying systems will change, often to introduce new features, you are forced to invest time and effort into your software, even if just to keep it running. Developing cloud-based software comes with the additional obligation to always make sure the systems are running and up-to-date, especially in terms of software security. This puts great pressure on the creators. But, circling back to the economic argument, users can also be expected to keep up their end of the bargain and continuously pay for the maintenance of the software. Planning with digital obsolescence creates a constant stream of income for creators and a constant stream of improvements for users.

Nonetheless there still seems to be something off when arguing from a user’s perspective. Obsolescence of software, while not generally morally or environmentally harmful, still leaves a bad aftertaste. Just mentioning some of the many promising companies who got acquired, only to have their product shut down, or straight out acqui-hired makes anyone who has used computers for any length of time go red with anger. I myself can relate very well to this feeling. Causing it is the simple fact that the investment users put into digital products is rarely only monetary: By using a product users invest much of their data and, even more importantly, time to create and maintain this data in a specific way. I use the somewhat toothless word “data” here because it seems the most universal one. Depending on the software it may take different shapes. This commitment is often discounted by product designers, because it is an investment foreign to any products but digital ones. The best comparison I can think of is this: Imagine having spent a great deal of time to learn how to use a very specific tool, only to find out when it breaks after a short while that it is not in production anymore. The greater harm is not in the economic loss of having bought a product that broke, but in the lost effort you invested in it.

When using a digital product there is a credit of trust that users extend to the product — and disregarding it is not only disrespectful, but unethical: As I have just shown, software creators profit financially from the cycle of obsolescence that is inherent to software creation. It therefore is their moral imperative to mitigate the side-effects of this cycle that users are negatively affected by.

Towards Digital Freedom of Movement

Of Dieter Rams’ famous 10 Commandments for Good Design, two are often cited when talking of planned obsolescence: “Good design is long-lasting” and “Good design is environmental-friendly”. But expecting software to be long-lasting is futile and contradicts the very nature of software development. And, as I have argued, in the digital space obsolescence and environmental-friendliness aren’t strongly correlated Of course maintenance of software requires labor which has an environmental impact..

What then would a corresponding commandment for good digital design look like? I suggest a digital equivalent to the idea of “Freedom of Movement”.

Freedom of movement […] is a human rights concept encompassing the right of individuals to travel from place to place within the territory of a country, and to leave the country and return to it. The right includes not only visiting places, but changing the place where the individual resides or works. Wikipedia on Freedom of Movement

As a paying (sic!) user of a software I have paid my debt to the developers. When I subsequently invest my data and my time, this is not for the benefit of the developers and should not be used as collateral against me. Good digital products respect this: they let me take my data — in a format that is as likely to be understood by other tools as possible! — and leave, and maybe bring my data and return. Everything else amounts to extortion.

Good digital design gives users the freedom to take their data and leave. A new commandment?

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