Book Review: “Understanding Planned Obsolescence”
There is something very post modern about this review. I was offered a copy of this new book (out 3 January 2017) to review, but what I got was an ebook hobbled by Digital Rights Management. It expires in a month and I am not allowed to cut and paste any quotations from it. Now I may not know much about copyright but I do understand the concept of “fair use”: which includes quotation!
I am going to cut and paste what I can from the blurb on netgalley and the publisher’s press release. (see below the line)
The reason that I wanted to read the book was my irritation at getting this tweet
The iPad mini in question is less than two years old. I have determined by reference to the book that I am not alone in this experience, and indeed it appears to be a long established policy of Apple. Indeed within the product cycle, the life of the hardware is prescribed – and there will inevitably come a day, long before the device in question is beyond repair, when its operating system will not get updated any more. There is a case in the book of the iPod whose battery life was designed to be 18 months, and the battery could not be replaced by the user. There is also a documented legal case of an iPod mini designed and sold as an adjunct to exercise which failed when it came into contact with human sweat. Apple’s advertising showed the device attached to human bodies under exertion!
There is nothing new about planned obsolescence. I read Vance Packard’s The Wastemakers at East Ham Grammar School when I studied A Level Economics (1964-66). Everybody knows about GM’s policy of annual model changes based simply on design as opposed to technical innovation. And the cartel of lightbulb makers who made their products fail earlier so that they could sell more of them. My Dad told me about British carmaker Armstrong Siddeley that went bust because their cars were built to last – and no-one ever bought another one having no need since the first one they got was so well made and reliable. I fully expect my 2007 Toyota Yaris to see me out – unless there is a sea change at the strata council and I could install a charger for an electric car. Or Modo relents and puts a shared car in our neighbourhood.
If you are a student then you will be comfortable reading this book. It is remarkably short – I read it cover to cover in two hours or so – and is well annotated and referenced. It does acknowledge Brexit – which will probably remove British consumers from all the EU protection offered to consumers, which is remarkably advanced compared to North America. But was obviously written pre Trump. With leaders like Trudeau and Clark we cannot expect anything other than continuing adherence to the best interests of their funders. And just as the fossil fuel industries will ignore the carbon bubble for as long as possible, we can confidently expect the 0.01% and the corporations they control to continue to ignore both the pile up of garbage and pollution and the growing shortage of critical raw materials (like rare earths) as long as their profits increase and remain largely untaxed. So acquiring this book if you are an activist and wishing to bring about some change is likely to disappointing.
But if you are really in need of an education in the theory of planned obsolescence this might be worth forty quid to you (CAN$66.45 at the time of writing). But as far as prescriptions go, there’s not much. The certainty that the “current hegemonic paradigm will not allow humans to remain on this planet much longer” – and therefore the need to “walk in search of new patterns, new models, new meanings to then build new paths, new paradigms”.
And that is about it.
Planned obsolescence is when a product is deliberately designed to have a specific life span. This results in the overexploitation of natural resources, increased waste, with huge social impacts. It is very well known in industries such as consumer electronics, but it is now creeping into other sectors.
This ground-breaking new book looks at the cost and consequences of planned obsolescence and its negative effects. It considers the sustainability, legal and economic theories behind it, how to mitigate these manufacturing strategies and find new ways of working. Understanding Planned Obsolescence includes a wide range of case studies from Europe, the USA and South America.
Will the new range of Apple products contribute to waste?
The short answer is yes, because continuous updates to the operating system render older iterations of the product obsolete, which drive consumers to purchase new products and throw the old versions to the side.
The long answer details what happens to those discarded products, which cost time and money to produce: they are now obsolete, driving consumers to lust after the newest version to meet their needs and keep up with the culture of ‘use a year and throw away’ that manufacturers like Apple have created.
Planned obsolescence, the practice of intentionally creating products with short lifespans, can be witnessed in products ranging from cars to jeans, and the consequences for the practice vary equally in scope. Reasons for the practice’s existence can be traced back to customers just as easily as to companies, but a debate on who takes responsibility needs to be informed so that both sides can understand the phenomenon and take educated steps to mitigating it.
Understanding Planned Obsolescence: Unsustainability through Production, Consumption and Waste Generation, out 3 January, aims to inform this debate, providing the basics into the practice. This ground-breaking new book looks at the causes, cost and impact of planned obsolescence. It considers the legal and economic frameworks to overcome the practice and how to mitigate its effects. This book is essential for sustainability students and practitioners who seek to understand planned obsolescence and the consumers’ role in the practice.
Thierry Libaert, initiator and main rapporteur on the European Economic and Social Committee opinion on planned obsolescence, provided advanced praise for the book, calling it ‘an absolute reference on planned obsolescence; it overcomes strictly technical or environmental visions to replace them, giving meaning and understanding in a broader economic and political context. The author does not merely describe a phenomenon, but presents a range of possible solutions’.
About the author: Kamila Pope is an Environmental Law and Bio-law lecturer, researcher and lawyer in Brazil. She has published a plethora of articles, chapters and papers covering Environmental Law, Sustainability, Planned Obsolescence and Waste Management. She holds a Master’s in Law, Environment and Political Ecology and is working toward a PhD in Law, Politics and Society.