Planned Obsolescence

Last night after putting Silas down to sleep for the first part of the evening, Steve gave me a play-by-play of his (very long) afternoon task of getting a new cell phone activated. A couple of nights ago the screen of his "old" phone started acting wonky: flashing on and off and randomly dialing people in his contact list. This has happened once before and Steve was able to find the parts he needed online, crack the phone open (a herculean task, really) and fix it himself. But, now that his phone is so "old" that they don't even make them any more, he had to replace the whole thing.

I've put "old" in quotation marks above because, by the standards of the cell phone industry, it really was. Three years is an eternity. But by every other measure, three years is such a small blip of time. That we readily accept certain things will be replaced on an ever-shorter basis is so frustrating. Whether it's cell phones or textbooks or toasters, making things that aren't meant to last benefits no one except for corporate fat cats and hurts us all as our landfills are stuffed to the brim with still-usable items and resources are depleted to make new, new, new.

In many ways we choose to opt out of this vicious cycle. We repair what we can, make do without, or buy used. But some things, like a working cell phone, truly are necessities (not for me, but for Steve in his line of work). But, it would be nice if the onus to purchase those items responsibly and to keep them working wasn't completely on us, ya know?

Part of my intense drive to learn new things, like knitting and sewing and the like, is that the population of people who can actually "do" is rapidly declining and I see a real danger of centuries-worth of knowledge dying with them. The percentage of Silas' generation who will go into professions like watchmaking is probably nil, but I still want to live in a world where there are watchmakers.

Above, Silas holds my very first cell phone, which I got almost 10 years ago. It doesn't text or take pictures. It really is just a phone. I wonder what they would say if I took it in and tried to activate it.


  1. The speed at which technology changes drives me crazy! Have you read Cradle to Cradle? It talks about how companies that make things should have to take them back after they are broken/obsolete (so essentially, consumers just rent stuff), which would encourage them to make this better or at least easier recyclable. I can only hope that we one day see our planet shift in that direction. Thanks for this important post Courtney.

  2. I think this is the hardest part about technology for me. I could change it daily, if I had the money and the wherewithal. Our phones are our only phones. They are also our primary cameras right now. They are time savers, lifelines, and fun makers. They are music, photos, and movie players. It's a little sad how much I depend on mine... good for you for opting out as much as you can. Does he like his new phone!?

  3. I still want to live in a world where there are watchmakers too!
    Much love to you.

  4. You are right it really is sad that nothing gets made locally anymore. I struggle to find materials with which to make things such as cabinets for my home. As far as cellphones are concerned, I keep them cheap and simple. I have a simple Tracfone prepaid. It costs about $20 to replace, so I do not have to stress too much about it.

  5. My "old" cellphone just died, too. It was 3 y.o. as well. I was shocked and extremely disappointed when Verizon told me that they only had two non-smartphone options in stock. Then the sales rep cheered me up somewhat when he told me the model I picked came in blue and purple, as well as black. Now I have a non-smart, but very pretty new blue phone. :)

  6. I agree. Don't even get me talking about cars and how no one can keep fixing them the way they used to.

  7. @MMG: I have read Cradle to Cradle and I agree that we would be in a much better situation if companies were responsible for the full life of what they manufacture, rather than shifting that burden onto consumers and municipalities. My one beef with the book is that they completely de-emphasize reducing what we consume. Sometimes we just need to not consume, I think.

    @Erin: He does like his new phone! Steve is such an enigma to me because he's a complete techno-junkie, but he's never had the desire to actually own all of it.

    @Trish: Thanks so much! :)

    @Anthony: This is one of my frustrations too. Even when I do "opt out" by making my own, my materials are still traveling quite a distance to get to me.

    @Kimberly: Yay for blue non-smartphones! :) And good for you for holding onto your phone for 3 years.

    @Susan: Cars are definitely another example. Fixing them is definitely a skillset I wish I had. Or, better yet, I wish I was more dedicated to bike riding.