Over the course of the 20th century, the term “planned obsolescence” has become a part of the general cultural understanding of “how things work”.  The general public now “understands” (or rather, assumes) that companies design products to fall apart so they have to be replaced.  “Things used to last longer”, it is said, as if there is a sensible comparison between highly complicated technology now and basic machines in “the good ol’ days”.

But what exactly is planned obsolescence?  In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, where he divided the concept into two parts: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function.  The first involved psychologically convincing a customer that a product needed to be updated, while the second involved designing products that would break and need to be replaced.  The only problem with such a concept is that it makes no sense, either economically or from an engineering standpoint.

The Economics

The economics of the argument, like many other arguments against a free market, makes little sense when analyzed.  There are many key assumptions made under the veil of planned obsolescence, but most of them are, in reality, false.  To demonstrate, let’s take a look at some of these assumptions and why they don’t work.

First, it is implicitly assumed that a product that lasts longer is automatically better.  But this may not be the case at all.  Whenever we examine economics, what is “better” is what satisfies the consumer’s desires more closely.  That may be something that lasts a long time, or it may be what is fashionable, or “cutting edge”, or has a certain additional functionality.  Not all people have the same desires, so the producers release multiple competing products with different characteristics and features.

As a result, something that lasts a long time may become obsolete anyway.  Nokia phones were nigh indestructible, to the point where it has become an internet meme.  Yet practically no one uses them now.  Why? They don’t fit the needs of the consumer, who desires smartphones that can run various apps, take pictures, surf the web, and so on.  What matters is not how long something might last, but how well it satisfies demands that are constantly changing.

Additionally, it assumes that the producers of goods are clever masterminds and consumers (who buy the product that best suits their needs and desires) are actually slaves to whims ginned up by advertising and shiny objects, without any sort of consideration of alternatives.  Not only is this demeaning to the purchasers of products (who presumably can tell which phone/computer/etc. best suits their needs), it ignores the actual workings of the market.

Consumers purchase the goods that best serve their needs.  Which means that if a longer-lasting good were to serve one’s needs better, any producer would greatly increase their profit by selling such a good while their competitors do not.  Why, then, would a greedy business owner not take advantage of this?  Are we to believe that greedy businesses suddenly become lazy instead, but only when designing products to be sold?  I think not – rather, any business will seek to better satisfy consumer demand when designing a product.

And here is the root of the issue.  The doctrine of “planned obsolescence” ignores the workings of a market.  Consumers demand goods, and businesses seek to make money by supplying those goods.  If the fashion industry has new designs that replace last year’s fully functional clothing, this is because consumers demand it.  If phones are designed to last three years instead of 10, it is because consumers demand this arrangement.  In all cases, the production of the market is arranged to best fit consumer demand, not to somehow trick the consumer into repeated purchases.

This can easily be seen by looking to understand why a phone might last three years.  Why not two?  One?  Six months?  If making the consumer replace their phone all the time makes sense, why not make them do it more often?  The answer is simple – the reason for this obsolescence is because of estimated technological progress, not some planning to make you buy a new phone.  An original iPhone is mostly useless now, but it isn’t because it was planned to become obsolete.  It simply has been surpassed by greater computing power and ease of use in later products.  Going back would eliminate both 4G and 3G data connections, the ability to use certain bandwidths for calls, newer Wi-Fi technology, and the loss of a chip powerful enough to support the newer software and its additional features and capabilities.  Obsolescence is a feature of innovation, not a bug.

The Engineering

The belief in “planned obsolescence” also denies the reality of engineering.  While I, as a computer engineer, am not particularly opposed to a doctrine that makes out engineers to be miniature gods remaking the world to fit their whims (well, except for the heresy aspect of it), were they not hampered by evil business types, the reality is far more constrained.  Engineering is about tradeoffs, and one of those tradeoffs is lifespan.

To make a product that is more able to resist wear and tear, drops, water damage, etc. is not a simple thing.  It requires design work and engineering – time and effort that must be diverted from engineering other features and capabilities.  It also can prevent designing features that people enjoy.  Thicker phones, for instance, could provide better damage resistance – but they’d also not sell as well if people want thin phones.  Sapphire glass may be more resistant to cracking than Gorilla glass – but it’s also likely more expensive.  The same would go for a titanium instead of aluminum case for electronics – along with worse heat dissipation, requiring less powerful chips.

The same goes for other engineering options that limit lifespan, such as replaceable batteries (requires a thicker phone or a weaker battery).  Using soft metal in screws and cheap plastic instead of metal in stress-bearing components will increase the speed at which a product will become inoperable through normal usage and render it prone to breakage from even minor forms of abnormal usage – but it also reduces the cost of the good, often significantly if it makes it easier to mass produce.  Once again, it is all about tradeoffs.

Another common example is to “needlessly” eliminate backward compatibility in software.  But this is simply a value judgment, often imposed by people that have no understanding of software design and production.  Backwards compatibility is not often a simple matter of keeping things the same.  Often vast amounts of code or even hardware design changes must be implemented simply to maintain this.  Depending on the needs of the consumer and the intended use of the product, this may not make sense.

A product of a given durability does not pre-exist.  Of course, people that bring up “planned obsolescence” claim that they understand that all matter is subject to entropy. It is impossible for any designed object to retain its full function forever; all products will ultimately break down, no matter what steps are taken.  They claim that “planned obsolescence” is only an issue if the lifespan of the product is rendered artificially short by design.  But there is no way to do this – lifespan is simply another engineering tradeoff, among a host of other design points.  The “ideal” lifespan of a good is entirely dependent on its use and the consumer’s needs.


In short, the idea of “planned obsolescence” is merely a fantasy – a shorthand for “that’s not the way I would have designed it”, often by people who have no idea what goes into the design of a product.  Obsolescence occurs as a result of technological advancement, innovation, and simply shifting consumer desires.  Producers attempt to plan for this, because satisfying consumer demands most appropriately is the best way to make money.  (It behooves no one for a company to spend time, money, and resources to make a device last 20 years when it will be obsolete in 4, for instance.)  This is all “planned obsolescence” is.  That it has become a bogeyman of the market is simply a further testament to the poor educational system in the West and its inability to properly teach students how (and not what) to think.