Built-in Obsolescence

I had a few days off and took my wife’s bike to the shop to get it fixed as she was complaining about the gears slipping and I thought it may need a new gear sprocket. When I got it there the bike shop owner showed me all the other issues with it. It’s only half as old as my bike but poorly maintained so suffering! – Anyway he said it was about £100 with labour costs to fix all the parts and so it was marginal whether it was worth repairing. I decided in the end to get her a new bike but I’ve since taken the old bike home and fixed it up using parts from other bikes.

The point of this is to say that when I was growing up we had bikes that lasted for decades. The thought of upgrading was never there. Bikes were all the same and parts interchangeable and cheap. Now it appears that bikes have gone the way of other technology. New bikes have more gears than previous versions and the parts are so expensive (compared to a new bike, as bike prices reduce) that it becomes easier and cheaper in many cases to upgrade than to buy parts if there’s a problem. It’s also though because culturally we are changing technology quickly. The rate at which people burn through mobile technology would be staggering to previous generations. It’s true too of PC’s and laptops. As good recent example of this is that the OU is likely to need to invest around 1 million to replace all it’s PC’s to have a new generation that work with Windows 7.

Think about that though for a moment. There’s no doubt that new PC’s are better than old but this is being decided by the Operating System where presumably people have said that it will be more costly to maintain older PC’s than to replace them all to run with the new OS. It’s also about a constant need to move forward, refresh, and not be behind. There are benefits to moving to a new OS but one of the big drivers for this is that older OS’s wont get supported after a certain date. This is the built-in obsolescence.

It suits supplier businesses to build a ‘time to live’ into their products which is just long enough for people to get attached to them but not so long that they can’t be moved onto the ‘next big thing’.

Whilst I’m on the subject of time to live I want to say that there are many fantastic technologies that have driven human progress including the space shuttle, Concorde and Harrier jets to name three.

These technologies were built to respond to a specific set of circumstances and they preformed their purposes fantastically well. Economically it may make sense to get rid of these but they leave a gap in their wake that won’t be filled easily. They also represent the best of human inventiveness. I hope that doesn’t get lost as humans build things on the nano scale and go for smaller, cheaper, faster technology consumables.

But do technologies have a shorter time to live now? – How does this model square with the ‘make do and mend’ recession culture, and also the green ICT (or lack of) of replacing iPhone versions every 6 months to get the latest apps? – I’m concerned that a cultural shift needs to happen both with manufacturing and consumerism to change habits and make people think more about the ‘burn through’ effect and to find models that are more environmentally and ethically sustainable.

About willwoods
I'm Head of Learning and Teaching Technologies in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University.

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