Mortal Engines: Planned Obsolescence from iPad to…iPhone.

(N.B: this blog was in part in no way inspired by the author’s own computer failing him due to a frail battery, increasingly cloying updates or other technical malaise).

The misty-eyed longing that surrounded Apple’s release of its latest model, the iPad Air, last month seemed disproportionate to the limited time this piece of hi-tech artistry will enjoy the spotlight. These launch events appear to happen so often that by the time one processes all the information surrounding a new product and attempts to scribble something down, the model in question is already on the fast-track to ancient history in the regularly refreshed pages of our Nano-Age Chronicle. A successor model to the iPad Air is no doubt already being planned and finessed before being moved on to the production stage; very possibly at an Apple-funded Chinese maquiladora (such as the Foxconn plant) where employee suicide rates have been reported to be shamefully high.

Taking a picture with an iPhone 5C on the day it went on sale last month.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

My own disregard for such theatrical product releases doesn’t come from a disdain for the genuinely incredible technology on show. Aesthetically pleasing GPS, flinging birds into suspiciously wobbly constructs and interactive maps of constellations in the night sky are all, in their own ways, fantastic. Despite not owning a smartphone and preferring turning actual pages to digital ones, I’m no Luddite. What seems so sinister about these gadgets is that they seem to have deliberate, purposeful built-in obsolescence. That is, they are built NOT to last. Or, they are built in the knowledge that a future model will soon make its predecessor unattractive or otherwise redundant. Previously documented practices have included:  heat sensitive components placed near others that are bound to get hot; limited-use batteries soldered or secured into devices rather than being accessible… these and many more tricks have been used to give sophisticated products like phones, laptops- even cars- a restricted lifetime.

In a recent article for the New York Times, Catherine Rampell highlighted the issue with the suspicious circumstances surrounding the iPhone 5S/5C launch:

At first, I thought it was my imagination. Around the time the iPhone 5S and 5C were released, in September, I noticed that my sad old iPhone 4 was becoming a lot more sluggish. The battery was starting to run down much faster, too. But the same thing seemed to be happening to a lot of people who, like me, swear by their Apple products. When I called tech analysts, they said that the new operating system (iOS 7) being pushed out to existing users was making older models unbearably slow…it seemed like Apple was sending me a not-so-subtle message to upgrade.

This cynical practice, where products are released intentionally having limited lifespan so as to ensure continued consumption, is nothing new to industrial capitalism. In the last century the issue was fully realised and addressed. For example, Aldous Huxley famously remarked how ‘Armaments, universal debt and planned obsolescence are the three pillars of Western prosperity’; still a strikingly apt statement for today’s world. Then we might look to confessions from practitioners themselves, who in fact coined the term. As US industrialist Brook Stevens argued in the Fifties, if producers used planned obsolescence, they could ‘Instil in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary’, to the detriment of the consumer and the profiteering of the producers.

Does the practice still continue today? On the evidence of tech-firms launching products just as many previous models suspiciously begin to wilt or die, it certainly seems so. One way we could conceivably change this would be to enforce higher regulatory standards on such merchandise. The CE symbol, used on most products sold in the EU, ensures a blanket standard of safety, health and environmental protection. With an extension of international cooperation like this, applying a similar industry standard of durability could be possible. It would help ensure resilience and lifespan in these products, and would surely benefit consumers in these harsh times.