Home June 2016 The Obscenity of Planned Obsolescence

The Obscenity of Planned Obsolescence

0616mayravsaarThe latch on my 6-year-old dishwasher is broken. My 5-year-old laptop’s hard drive died today. And recently my husband upgraded our 4-year-old iPhones because he “had to.”

See, if he hadn’t exchanged our perfectly good phones for brand new ones, our ancient technology would wither and die. He explained this to me slowly and patiently, the way you’d redirect a toddler at a pet store away from the upside down goldfish.

When I blinked at him silently, to signal that he sounded like a guy on a street corner wearing a tinfoil hat and bathrobe, he returned the gesture. I, apparently, am the crazy one, for not understanding the gloriousness of planned obsolescence.

For the uninitiated (hi, Mom!), “planned obsolescence” refers to the tiny flaws strategically designed into our everyday products, that require us to replace all our shiny new machines with shinier, newer ones, at a staggering rate.

My husband and I continued like this, blinking at each other, until the rage I feel against our disposable society—a society that celebrates when Apple unveils a robot designed for the sole purpose of disassembling outdated gadgets that are younger than my underwear—finally boiled over into in a sparse poem of impassioned despair and existential fury:

“That’s stupid.”

Planned obsolescence is obscene. It’s what some guy driving a Plymouth Barracuda in 1965 would have called a “flimflam,” because back then, even our language was more powerful. It’s ridiculous. It’s unconscionable. And not for nothing, it’s un-Jewish.

When I was a child, my mother told me a story in the Midrash of a Roman emperor who passed by an old man planting a fig tree. When the emperor asked the man why he was bothering to plant a tree when it was clear he wouldn’t live long enough to eat its fruits, the man replied, “Just as my ancestors planted trees for me, I plant trees for future generations.”

The kicker to this story is that when I looked it up years later, I realized that I had forgotten the best part: The guy does live long enough to enjoy the figs, and the emperor rewards him for what today would be called “pride of workmanship” by replacing the man’s basketful of figs with a basketful of gold.

There’s an important lesson here for the makers of stuff and things. One day someone, maybe someone driving an old Plymouth Barracuda because—what d’ya know—those cars still run beautifully, will figure out that the world craves quality. More than shiny newness, we need to know that the life expectancy of our gadgets can be measured in decades, not product cycles. That person will usher in a new era of stuff that lasts. Dependable stuff. Good stuff.

And that person, I hope, will be richly rewarded with basketfuls of gold.

Mayrav Saar is a writer based in Los Angeles.

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