I don’t know much about cars, but I have picked up bits of knowledge that come with vehicle ownership.
For example, I know too much heat is bad, so is too much or too little oil. I also know that you never want a cambelt to snap. If you are lucky, it’s just a few grand worth of damage. If you aren’t, it can write off your car.
My basic understanding is this: the belt snaps and is pulled into the engine. Not only does that belt tangled up with your car’s innards, but this also causes the timing of the pistons to fail, which is the equivalent of everyone in a 100m Olympic sprint suddenly changing direction randomly. The result is catastrophic.
So, why don’t cars still have timing chains? Unlike a cambelt, which is made from rubber and synthetic materials, a timing chain is good old metal. These were the popular choice until as recent as the 1990s, but today timing chains are very rare. This inspires a natural conspiracy that car manufacturers are forcing us to replace our cambelts more often; a costly exercise. It is often held as an example of “planned obsolescence” and proof that this practice exists for nothing else than to shake customers by their ankles.
The attitude persists. Not too long ago, Apple made what at first seemed like an astounding confession: it has been slowing down older devices artificially through software updates. Almost immediately, the narrative became one of intentionally sabotaging user devices to force upgrades.
Consumers cried out so much that Apple launched a subsidised battery replacement offer – remember, this is a company that rarely even admits it’s wrong. Numerous legal actions have been launched, including possible criminal cases in France, where “planned obsolescence” is illegal.
Yet I suspect that if that particular case was allowed to run its course, and not resolved through a settlement, Apple would win. When you look more closely at Apple’s revelation, it’s not a case of planned obsolescence. Apple wasn’t reducing the performance of old devices to force upgrades, but to maintain a more consistent user experience. If your battery isn’t old, the Apple slowdowns don’t affect your device.
This puts the shoe on the other foot. It’s not Apple trying to push new stuff on us, but us demanding consistency as if our devices never degraded. Apple appeared to be fighting for a perception it is very sacred about. As an Apple device user, I can appreciate it: consistency is something you expect from its products. In the Apple world, something either works well or doesn’t work at all. There are no half measures.
Of course, we don’t see it like that. There is a big difference between using technology and understanding technology. But we make up for that by confusing our interpretations as fact. So, we expect a device to last longer than it should, and we then get angry at the vendor when it doesn’t live up to those expectations.
The problem isn’t planned obsolescence. The problem is us. Our personal relationships with our devices have made us arrogant, which we fail to realise and instead project onto the brands we expect that consistency from. So, when the Apple announcement surfaced, we all jumped to the narrative we prefer — one of a greedy company — and ignore our own culpability.
Okay, it’s not that simple. Companies have been caught out engineering obsolescence for the sake of sales. One famous example is that of cutting matches against the grain. It is a fact that if you make things too well, and you don’t charge enough for that quality, you will go out of business. Just ask the Arts & Craft movement of the late 1800s. There are also questions to be asked about software efficiency and if developers aren’t just being lazy, opting for the new hardware instead of optimising for existing devices?
But before we can get there, we must be honest here. We want our devices to always perform as we expect — and we don’t want to pay a ransom for it. To borrow the title of an Errol Morris documentary, we want it fast and cheap, but we won’t admit we’re out of control.
Timing chains are not perfect. They are more difficult to replace and they are noisier. If that seems moot, the Volkswagen emissions scandal started because engineers wanted to reduce the engine noise in their diesel motors. That one attempt to appease consumers turned into a landslide of illegal action. Cambelts came into vogue because they are cheaper to make, easier to replace and more likely to be maintained reliably. Timing chains turned out to be a giant hammer for a considerably smaller nail (though even this debate continues to rage on).
Then again, perhaps this perception around planned obsolescence is the price for feeding the consumption beast. If you keep dangling bigger and better things, wrapped in a sexy brand, can you expect anything else but irrational demand? You don’t feed the animals in a reserve, or they soon start stealing your picnic basket.
But animals are dumb. Humans can be better. Consumers still exercise the final choice. For this debate to change, we first must admit our personal obsessions with our stuff is clouding our judgment.
- James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications