Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Planned obsolescence - get rid of it!

Andrew D Atkin:




















One of the reasons why we have all those mass-production plants churning out all those goods, is because those goods have been carefully designed with strategic weaknesses that ensure that they will fail after a certain amount of use, forcing the consumer to repurchase the product. A classic example is the light bulb - make that filament just slightly thicker and it will last forever.

Why on earth do we tolerate this crazy waste? Where are the durability regulations?

Building products to last is not hard. All you have to do is throw in a little more material mass at the (otherwise) weak points, and your product could last you a virtual lifetime. And I can assure you - that little bit of (comparative) over-building adds next to nothing to the overall construction cost of the device.

Okay, some products must wear out in any circumstance, in particular for where moving parts interface and therefore induce mechanical wear. However, products can be easily designed so that mechanical interfaces (and other must-perish components) can be easily replaced. What's more, You-tube videos can be created to show anyone how to make a specific replacement for any given product-component (think of a TV cooking show - monkey see, monkey do!). Furthermore, with the use of the internet the exact component that you require can be effortlessly purchased online - you could just dial up a schematic of your product by typing in the model number to a product-based search engine, and then click on the specific component that you need. It should be as simple as that.

We shouldn't have to throw away an entire product due to one or two worn-out components, in the same way that we don't throw away our cars just because the tyres have gone bald. Today more than ever, there is no excuse for planned obsolescence. There is no need for a "throw away" society like it exists today. It is, or could be, simply too easy to maintain our stuff.

Motive for planned obsolescence:

The motive for planned obsolescence is clear enough. A lack of planned obsolescence can quickly lead to a glut of the product the manufacturer is selling, and that glut will instantly threaten the sale-price of any more products coming onto the market. This is a big deal if you've already sunk, say, $50m into your production plant. You don't want to destroy your own demand.

Effect of removing planned obsolescence:

What would happen if we managed to get rid of planned obsolescence (probably via government regulations, and publicly advertised durability ratings)?

With minimal population growth, our existing production plants would be forced to slow down to meet the reduced demand. Yes, there would be a reduction of economic activity, but only for the right reasons i.e. we just wouldn't need to produce and consume so much for a given living standard achieved. In the end, we would work less but be just as rich.

There is the argument that planned obsolescence facilitates progress by creating an enduring high demand for new products, and therefore creates the opportunity for products to be further developed. I don't buy this argument at all (no pun intended), as I will explain:

Modern computers are made obsolete not because they wear out, but because much better computers can be purchased to replace them. This is the kind of progress that we would see with the removal of planned obsolescence. There would be less incremental change (over time) with the products that we buy, but when the change does occur we will see much more substantial advancements - improvements substantial enough to allow a significant portion of the market to sell off their perfectly well-functioning dishwasher (or whatever) for the state-of-the-art new model.

So progress will happen in fewer but big steps, rather than many small steps. Indeed, you could assume that progress will happen more aggressively because the pressure will be on engineers to make truly significant improvements to their products, and society will also have more resources to facilitate that progress via the improved overall efficiency from the removal of waste.

However. With the removal of planned obsolescence you will get a small reduction in economies-of-scale - production plants will tend to be geared for smaller production runs, and that means less investment in extreme and high-speed automation in the production process. So yes, this will make products a little more expensive to buy off hand, but then not by much because the global demand for products in general is still going to be massive in any circumstance (we're 6+ billion and growing!). So, in turn, you would still tend to see highly efficient mass-production invested into good quality products.

Regardless, even if those new products are a bit more expensive, you would of course be purchasing them less often, and you could still pick up anything you need second-hand with confidence that it will last for a very long time.

Conclusion:

Getting rid of planned obsolescence is winner on every count. My conclusion is that we, as a society, should stop it via political pressure as soon as we possibly can. It really is just crazy.

11 comments:

  1. Planned obsolescence comes from Greed and The desire to sell more. It comes from big business, which runs governments and the world or soon will. This is that world government. It only seems to bring bad fruits. It lusts for power and control rather than good things. Let me put it this way.

    The means never justifies the ends. Anyone who will sacrifice means in order to obtain an end, is too willing to compromise what they supposedly believe in. I believe that the means that I value and support is superior to obtaining better results, not inferior. If I have to resort to something else, then what I have is not so good. NWO and 1WGov love dirty “means” cause they are very dirty mean people who intend nothing good for anyone except themselves.

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  2. Most of us, in the west, have bought into the newer, better, faster racket. Even those who still hold to so called "olden day" values, who haven't been sold on built-in obsolescence, accept without much question that the economic system we have is the only one worth having. Consider how, in the 70's, we were sold on the idea of more leisure time in the bright future and we saw that evaporate as we worked harder and longer to pay for the basics and our increasing debts from buying more and more things we don't really need to satisfy wants that are artificially created. E. F. Schumacher was right: mass take-up of the principles of voluntary simplicity is the only way to slow things down.

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  3. Sandy,

    I think there's a growing class in the industrialised world that really does only buy what it needs - an effect of our developing (and artificially created) "poverty".

    Maybe we could look at boycotting junk products? I notice you can buy products that last a long time, but they always cost a fortune, or a heck of a lot more...even though they are no more sophisticated or substantial than the cheap products.

    My best guess is that low-volume production runs that do not invest in extreme mass-production compete simply by removing planned obsolescence (or some of it). Imagine how much more society could profit if it forced the high-volume producers to slightly modify their products so that they could last more like 50 rather than 5 years, which is absolutely possible.

    Theoretically a boycott of junk products could do that as it would leave manufacturer's with no choice. BUT we would need government assistance to force durability transparency on any given product.

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  4. I agree with everything that was stated in the article.
    However, I would also venture out to say that planned obsolescence isn't the only problem. Computers for example are still using outdated materials like silicon for basis of electronics, whereas we had the capacity to use synthetic diamond chips for creating electronics since 1996 (maybe not a full blown computer, but by 2000, most definitely - resulting in 40x better/faster/efficient computers - in essence, they would consume a fraction of power they do today and wouldn't even need active cooling since diamonds as such have far superior thermal properties).
    Same thing with graphene which was invented in 2004 and is 2-3x better than diamonds - could have been used in electronics at least partly since 2006.

    Money is the biggest issue... or should I say... the pursuit of profits.
    To that end, very small % of materials are actually recycled globally (less than 20%).

    Greed, pursuit of profits and more money are actually slowing us down severely in terms of technology.
    Look at mag-lev trains.
    The technology was available since 1974 - fastest land based train would be 400km/h - and we also had the capacity back then to create vacuum tubes that would propel maglev trains at speeds of 6500 km/h...
    Used only in few countries and in very limited quantities.

    Effectively speaking, by the time those 'new' technologies are applied in practice, they are already decades old.
    Because if they were implemented from the get go in the most efficient manner known to us at the start... we would have actively worked towards improving those systems from the get go...

    No one asks themselves if something is possible from a resource/technological point of view... but whether its 'economically viable' (aka 'cheap' in terms of money).
    Cost efficiency has nothing to do with technical efficiency.

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    1. Good comments - Thank you.

      Interesting about the computer chips. I understand thermal efficiency is the big issue with them today. It's apparently the main speed-limiter.

      Atomic computers will give birth to exceedingly powerful simulators. Imagine what that can mean when we can cybernetically simulate biological systems for genetic engineering, or even for the development of a precise theory of physical matter and physics. It's like slamming your foot down on the progress accelerator, as the development process can happen *so* fast.

      Maglev:

      Good in a vacuum tube for the future, maybe, and good using inductrack in the Skytran system. Otherwise it's overrated in terms of practicality.

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  5. Maglev is hardly overrated in terms of practicality.
    The only thing preventing us from implementing a global maglev network is money.
    We have had (and still do) ample supply of resources and technology to connect the world with maglev by early 1980's (and all urban areas using overground versions, while transcontinental trips and town to town trips would be done via vacuum tubed maglevs).
    They are 100x more power efficient (and consume that much less power) compared to regular trains.

    As for thermal efficiency being the biggest issue with todays computers...
    As I said before, synthetic diamonds were patented for creation of semiconductors, means of production and their integration in electronics back in 1996.
    Carbon nanotubes were patented for practical application in electronics and means of production in 1992.
    Synthetic diamonds would eliminate usage of active cooling because they wouldn't start to melt until reaching 2000 degrees Celsius (whereas Silicon turns would turn to puddle at less than 150 degrees Celsisus) and they wouldn't give off any heat to begin with (plus, electronics could be made A LOT smaller and would be orders of magnitude more powerful/efficient compared to current day electronics).
    Plus, synthetic diamonds are man-made and they can be produced in abundance.
    If we made computers from these materials (carbon-nanotubes included) and for example made components in the smallest possible process the material allows (that our latest scientific knowledge is in line with), then we'd see stupidly more advanced technology.
    You have to understand though that living in Capitalism inherently prevents this. In Capitalism, they INTENTIONALLY use inefficient and scarce materials because its 'cheap' from a $$ point of view, AND it gives companies leeway to give you incremental 'revisions' of existing technology once every 12 to 24 months (even though they already know how to make the chip technology that won't sell for 10 or 15 years - at least - so they start with the lowest, then move on the better - but that also means we had the ability to get what we use today at least a decade ago).

    As for energy... by the year 1929, the globe could have easily transitioned to geothermal for baseload energy production along with using wind as supplement.
    We perfected recycling in late 19th century giving us ability to recycle heavy elements.
    We had the ability to break matter down into base elements and reconstitute it into something else.
    We have millions of tons (in landfills) on this planet that piles over the centuries to produce abundance (several times over) for each person on the planet and the industry if we used superior synthetic materials (which we knew how to make for A LONG time).

    Today... we can create energy using meta-materials comprised of carbon nano-tubes (without any need of powerplants of emissions of any kind).
    We can also generate light in such a manner.
    Today, we can use molecular manufacturing (using nanotechnology) to manipulate molecular structure of practically any matter and convert it into another form of matter.

    And those are just the tip of the iceberg.
    Vacuum maglev trains are already outdated technology.
    We are talking about commercially available knowledge that is DECADES old - and that alone could easily propel us into a new age of prosperity and continuous quantum leaps in technology.

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  6. Money is an inherently limiting factor.
    We live in artificially induced scarcity because we are already producing abundance.
    Look at food.
    The world is producing enough to feed 10 billion annually (and has been doing so for over 30 years).
    This is using outdated agriculture along with pesticides, chemicals and gmo that are dangerous to our bodies (whereas for decades we had the ability to grow organic food in fully automated vertical farms using hydropnics, aquaponics, and aeroponics, without soil, using only 25% of water that we presently use, and the crops in question could grow up to 5x faster by simply forcing them to grow against gravity through implementation of omega gardens).

    We had... PLENTY of technological options/solutions a century ago to 98% of the world's problems.
    But... technology alone isn't enough.
    Money is our biggest obstacle (which is useless seeing how today we can easily automate about 80% of the global workforce - although 100% is possible) along with stagnant mentality of most humans who are not exposed to relevant general education.

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    1. Deksman2:

      Massive corporations must be very cautious with respect to the over-supply issue. They don't want to destroy their own demand, and therefore your assertions that we could do better--maybe radically better--are tangible. Do you have any interesting links on this?

      BTW: I have always liked geothermal. It's a totally stable heat source, and a benign and virtually inexhaustible resource.

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  7. Corporations are mostly concerned about making money/profits. They HAVE to conform to the system and create inherently inferior technology/products (that will be very similar/same compared to others on the market).
    Cost efficiency = technological inefficiency, which in turn promotes planned obsolescence and cyclical consumption we see rampant in the world today.
    They also need/want to stay in the game as long as possible - which means, profits come first (not REAL progress).

    Bear in mind: utopia implies perfection and stagnation - but none of those can actually exist in reality since the world is ALWAYS undergoing change.

    What we CAN have however, is a world rid of most of the problems we faced for a long time now.
    Technologically and resource wise, we had the ability to wipe out hunger, poverty and most diseases just over 100 years ago - this includes 'energy problems' and other things.
    Its not perfection/utopia however... its just a lot better than what we currently have.

    By contrast, our current technology in use is nowhere near of what we can actually do (we toy in technological obscurity because its profitable).

    As for links...
    Well, I would advise you look into The Venus Project: http://www.thevenusproject.com/

    There is a section on the website with answers to over 100 regularly asked questions (and explaining many misconceptions/projections).

    Keep in mind though that the only reason we have a resource shortage NOW is because:
    we use outdated/inefficient materials we cannot reproduce in abundance, and do not recycle.
    we still employ outdated methods of energy production/distribution.
    we still use manual labor (in the age where we had access for near full automation since the 1970's).

    By switching over to materials that can be produced in abundance (ignoring fictional notions of 'costs' 'value' and 'money') and focusing on what is achievable in terms of abundance for every person on the planet (including the industry) in a sustainable capacity with what we can do in the best possible (And most efficient) manner from a technological point of view (that is in line with our latest scientific knowledge) - then I can tell you that our REAL abilities would probably frighten quite a lot of people.

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  8. I'd actually like to revise a sentence I wrote in my last post.
    We still use manual labor in the age where we have access to extremely high levels of automation via computers/robotics since the late 1950's - robotic arms were invented around 1958 (imagine what could have been accomplished if that technology was implemented wherever possible from the start).

    My point is: do not ask yourself 'how much it costs' but rather:
    'do we have enough resources and technology to make it happen' (the answer to this is basically always, YES - especially if we used superior synthetic materials that we can produce in abundance with sustainability in mind).
    Our capacity (in terms of material notions) is the following: we can create a world in which each person on the planet could be living 3 times BETTER than the richest person on the planet today.
    This is not a joke btw.
    Once you turn away from inefficiency and profits and turn technology to create abundance for everyone in a sustainable capacity with minimal footprint, highest efficiency that we are capable and creating THE BEST of what technology has to offer (that is in line with our latest scientific knowledge - and forgive me if I repeat myself here), our technology would be about 100 years more advanced (if not even beyond that).

    You think our technology is developing fast as it is?
    Eliminate money, and you would have to get ready for quantum leaps (one after another).

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  9. I wrote about The Venus Project in my Club Economies article:

    http://andrewatkin.blogspot.co.nz/2009/06/club-economies.html

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