Oct 12, 2011 by

The Story of Stuff
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This video is courtesy of The Story Of Stuff – a big thanks to Annie Leonard for taking the time to create and offer this to us all. To start the video just press the button on the far left of the player window.

I have been meaning to do an article on this subject for a very long time.

Mean time between failures (MTBF) is the predicted time between the functional operation of a system (product) and its failure.

What the fuck (WTF) is a basic human response to a preposterous or unbelievable statement, object or situation.

Son of a bitch (SOB) is often uttered by an English speaker in response to said WTF or other situation that may elicit anger.

What we are talking about here is planned obsolescence. The origins of this go way back to 1932 with Bernard London’s essay “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.”

At Wikipedia, there is a sort of  ideological war going on the background of the articles on planned obsolescence that is an interesting read in itself. Someone with an agenda is using the  “conspiracy theory” straw man to discount anyone who even suggests that there is a clear trend, as each year passes, towards manufacturing products that have lower and lower functional life times.

He/she speaks with such certainty that I think they need a collective slap from all of us who just threw out yet another piece-of-crap no-good “thingamajigger” that we bought six months ago and were actually hoping that we wouldn’t need to buy again for a few years.

These days when we buy stuff some of it is made obsolete through our incessant “feature desire.”  All you Apple fanboys/fangirls will be out to attack on this one, but Apple is exceedingly famous for holding back “features” on products so that you will buy them again as soon as the new version of the product comes out.  A perfect example of Apple causing you to be beholden to them as far as iPhones, iPods, etc. go is that there is absolutely no good reason for them not to provide a micro-sd slot on the device. Actually, there is a good reason – everything is great about the device that you currently own except one thing, you need more memory.  Many seem to forget these decisions are made to line the pockets of people who have more money than you and I could even fathom – yet we bend over year after year and take it. If we can’t be judged on our ability to curb our consumption, we can surely be judged on our collective willingness to bend over and take whatever any corporation says we should take. If we are not ashamed for the first reason, we surely should be ashamed for the second.

Some would try to shame you, questioning you as to whether you need that  gadget at all – I’m not going to do that. Personally I like my iPhone. Would I ever buy an Apple computer? Not a chance. Why?  With their small portable devices, Apple has set the bar for functionality and usability. In my opinion,  no one else is making comparable devices (yet). As far as personal computers go, especially in the last five years, Apple computers are in this author’s opinion an outright insult to consumers. This post isn’t about vilifying Apple, but it should be pointed out that they are not ANYTHING like what they have marketed themselves to be. They are overpriced, over-engineered, closed-tech, non-open-source, non-upgradeable, one could go on and on.

The point is that Apple is a marketing miracle. Somehow they have managed to use every devious, despicable technique in the world to position themselves where they are today and do it in such a way as they actually have raving foaming at the mouth idiots who will defend them regardless of their actions. I can buy a faster and just as stable W7, Linux-based open technology hardware platform computer for 40% cheaper than almost any Apple PC offering. Before any wingnuts out there start saying Apple PCs are more secure against viruses I have a statement and a question. I have in my life written millions and millions of lines of code. How many lines of code have you written? Okay now with that out of the way I will tell you why this foolish idea is even out there. If I’m going to write technologically advanced viruses who am I going to write them for? The piddling number of Apple PCs or the millions upon millions of Windows-based machines?  The point should be clear to all, except, of course, Apple fans. Talking to an Apple acolyte is very much like talking to a Christian: it really doesn’t matter how logical an argument you present – their faith overcomes all.

I suspect that within two to three years Apple’s dominance of the small mobile market will be eviscerated as well. First, as much as Tim Cook is a stable, smart replacement for Steve Jobs, he ain’t Steve Jobs. Secondly, as many of you have noticed, Research In Motion, maker of the Blackberry, are daily closer to bankruptcy. There are a number of huge reasons for this but I posit one for you to chew on.

Like Apple, their entire technology infrastructure is closed. As this next generation grows up and starts buying mobile devices for themselves, we can see people becoming less and less tolerant of companies that bind their customers to them through proprietary technologies. The companies that will be successful in the future are those that promote reuse, open source, conservation, and upgradability. The trends are already becoming clear and will, like all snowballs, get bigger and bigger as public awareness grows. I suspect that as embedded  technologies improve it won’t be long before Android or other devices will advertise “This device will run all Apple iPhone and iPad applications,” and when they do I will applaud them heartily.

There are many, many people out there who are preaching about the morals of constantly purchasing these products and thereby helping propagate this linear material economy. While I fully agree with these folks I’m not going to harangue you about this here.  You hear enough of this these days – it’s up to you, knowing what you know, to limit your consumption where you can, and at the very least to be thinking about these things the next time you want to throw something out just because you want the latest and the greatest.

I believe that most of you are intelligent enough to realize that with the population growing at the rate it is –  the estimated population of the world in 2050 is a stunning 9,538,988,263 people – and with the shortages we are already experiencing in material resources, shortages could very well cause large protracted conflicts all over the world in the future. We aren’t just talking about oil – there are other “minor” things like fresh water, ocean stocks, wood, etc. Just one example; North Atlantic Cod stocks have collapsed from roughly 264,000 tonnes in 1970 to under 60,000 tonnes today. Despite the cessation of fishing, they are still failing to recover. So limiting our consumption is crucial, and I would think that’s obvious to most people.

Now let’s get back to “planned obsolescence”. I mentioned MTBF earlier because what we need to do is learn to use the very jargon the industry uses rather than using our own language to describe such things.

The most common argument against this planned obsolescence and its effect on pricing, durability and so on is in this author’s opinion a fantastic lie of epic proportions:

“If we make this product with better materials and better engineering, it causes the price per piece to increase so much that we can’t effectively supply it to the public at an affordable price.”

Bullshit! Bullshit and more bullshit. How long will we be so ignorant as to believe these statements?

Perhaps a bigger question would be, “What is it about our society that causes so many people to become sheep and submissively listen to what a corporation says and then choose to believe it without actually questioning, critically,  the basic premises?”

Corporations are constantly supplying us with conclusions without supporting arguments. When they do provide an argument they are most often ergo propter hoc,  Straw man arguments, Ad hominem, Cherry picking, and other logical fallacies – I go could go on and on and on about the use of language to pervert, distort, and confuse the general public.

They get away from it, day after day, year after year for very simple reasons.

A large percentage of those reading this will be disinterested, intellectually lazy, or simply just happy to be ignorant, blissful fucking idiots for the rest of their lives – rather than clicking on any of the above links. When we wonder why things are going to hell in our world let’s not just blame the corporations, governments, sociopaths, etc.; blame ourselves because we want to live undisturbed and happy in our collective ignorance.

Try this search: “Why isn’t critical thinking being taught in school?” Why isn’t it? I will leave up to you to decide. Just remember, if you are going to even begin to become a critical thinker, when you start getting excited about a certain big idea, make sure that you balance it by looking at information that attempts to argue against that idea.

This is where we become enlightened and not sheep. It is the beginning of simple critical thinking skills; it is the beginning of freedom. Critical thinking encourages us recursively question even itself – critical thinking. This is an idea that is not afraid of being exposed as yet another lie.

We are to accept a company’s claim that they can’t produce a product with a certain level of durability because it would make them too expensive and unaffordable to the masses, without question, and if we do not, if we dare to question the validity of their statement, the straw man “conspiracy theory” comes out of their, until now, exceedingly effective social manipulation tricks bag.

It would not be impossible to prove with sufficient repetition and psychological understanding of the people concerned that a square is in fact a circle. What after all are a square and a circle? They are mere words and words can be molded until they clothe ideas in disguise.

-Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda

One needs to ask, why is it is that for just a few more dollars they can produce a product that lasts not twice as long but for many, many, many years?

I was born in 1968 and therefore as of this writing I’m 42 years old. I can remember in my lifetime such products as, for example, a toaster at my grandparents’ house. This toaster when I was growing up must have already been 10-15 years old and that same toaster kept on making toast until both my grandparents passed away. And guess what? My mother still uses that toaster today! How many years old do you think this toaster is now? And it’s beautiful to look at, a stunning, shiny chrome object! The only plastic parts on it are the handles on the side, and it sure isn’t like the plastic made today. This old plastic is hard and as rigid as the metal it is attached to. The only reason it was used here was not for keeping prices down or anything like that – it was a practical reason: plastic is not the best conductor of heat and therefore provides a place for you to touch without feeling the heat of the toaster.

Everything is plastic these days, even things that shouldn’t be such as gears, clasps, and connectors of all sorts. Most plastics come from petrochemicals and these, in and of themselves, are becoming increasingly scarce. One would think that a corporation would look to other materials more frequently.  Considering that iron, copper, etc. are so abundant in the Earth’s crust, one would think that we would look towards these materials, in cases where such things as weight are unimportant. Also, the reclamation and reuse of metals is often not as sophisticated and toxic a process as is the recycling of plastic.

While it is true that a company could intentionally use a soft metal alloy in a product so as to expedite the MTBF, it would be a zero sum game as the public becomes increasingly aware of this practice. The basic idea is that even if some companies continue to participate in this practice, the discarded, nonfunctional metal products are easier to reclaim (in general) than many plastic products.

My wife and I looked and looked for an espresso machine so that we could stop supporting places such as Starbucks. We also chose to purchase a home roaster as well. In our search we would see espresso machines in the $150.00, $250.00, $500.00, or $1500.00 range.

All of these machines provide the same essential options. An espresso machine is not rocket science. The basic mechanical functionality does not differ all that much from one machine to the next. The critical question is: what differences are there between these machines that would make the prices so wildly disparate?

It is actually a very simple question to answer.

A point to keep in mind as we continue our discussion is our incessant need to have what we want,  when we want it. As soon as the idea strikes us we must consume. You would almost think we have been programmed that way, but I digress.

The cheapest machines, those in the $50.00 – $100.00 range, are marketed to buyers with the very lowest of incomes and are made with the shoddiest imaginable materials, engineering, and quality control. These products have an average life span of six to eighteen months. Not only that, but because they were bought so cheaply there is little reason to repair them or replace parts – you just go out and buy another one. Perhaps you will try to buy one that’s a little more expensive this time, hoping that the lifespan of your purchase will accordingly increase.

The only real difference between the machines in the lowest price range and the machines in the highest price range is that the materials and quality control are slightly better each time the price increases. Slightly better, in that the parts cost $1 more to make, and someone is hired (cheaply) to watch the product as it goes by him on the conveyor belt. Does this justify a $300 or $500 jump in price for each unit?

No, companies are not trying to make their products affordable to us by using cheaper materials and investing less in engineering. It’s all about stratifying products across income and social levels – one set of products for each level. And every minute increase in quality means a disproportionate increase in price, because they know that the consumers who can afford it will buy that overpriced product, just to have something that lasts a little longer and works a little better.

Many companies nowadays are simple mountebanks and operate on the premise that they can get away with what they do for a very, very long time. Often we ourselves forget how terrible a product was after moving to some competitor who didn’t offer anything of better value anyway.

To summarize:

  • Think critically about what we need and think even more critically when a company says we need it.
  • Look for companies that are catching on quicker than others and are offering affordable products that offer real durability instead of fancy marketing.
  • Ignore companies that constantly withhold easily supplied features so as they can add them later – inducing you to throw out the old so as you can get the feature that should have been there in the first place. We often mistake this for innovation when it is just sleazy corporate bleeding of our pocket books.
  • Ignore companies that withhold features in order to artificially price products into different class/income levels.

I will continue to drill deeper into this subject in future posts. I must leave it for now, as I have promised to publish the next edition of Beautiful Anger this week as well. There is only one of me and I’m not a very good typist.

In the next part of this essay we will look more closely at some of the ideas we briefly glossed over in this edition. We will start by discussing Bernard London’s 1932 essay “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” and we will also look at such notable figures as the American industrial designer Brooks Stevans, who said planned obsolescence was

“Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”

Until next time,





  1. Rose

    Since you don’t mention it and Ms. Leonard doesn’t either, it would be good to reference here a book that sold well in 1960 (the 50 or so years ago mentioned more than once in the lecture!): “The Waste Makers” by Vance Packard. Apparently a lot of folks read that at the time, but few of them still had their turquoise refrigerators 5 years later. I believe the consumer culture will fail only when consumer goods are no longer available for a price anyone can afford, which may be sooner than we think.

    Another point: The word “Christians” should please be changed to include religious fundamentalists of all sorts. Christians have not cornered that market, and a lot of Christians (and others) temper their faith with a kind of logic that says God gave us brains and wants us to use them. While I do not hold with any unquestioned faith, I believe it is too risky to dismiss people of faith (the vast majority) outright, not leaving an opportunity for them to consider whether it might be possible to save the planet without renouncing their beliefs. A statement that effectively slams a door in their face tends to make people close their minds to the rest of the story.

    A great many “Save the Planet” t-shirts and posters were printed and sold the year you were born. Thanks for carrying on the effort.

    • RedIron

      Rose words of a wise, empathetic, beautiful person. I will make the change you suggested. I can’t argue with any of your words. Any chance I could get you to do a guest column here on oddbloke. Thank you and I hope you come back again, and continue to question. I was about to mention Mr. Packard when I mention another man that seems to be such a dirty word, Mr. Karl Marx, Peace and thanks for stopping by and even more so for leaving your insightful comment. Growing never stops…


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