Planned obsolescence is the manufacturing intent to make a consumer product wear out within a specific time period, prompting the consumer to replace the product preferably with an identical (slightly updated) item from the same manufacturer. Perceived obsolescence involves the consumer viewing a perfectly good product as out-of-date or unfashionable, desiring something newer and better than the product they currently have—even if replacement of the product isn’t necessary and the item already owned is still perfectly functional.
As we have become better at making things and better at making new kinds of things, we have also become more and more careless with said items. How many times do any of us replace T-shirts, cellphones, cheap watches, shoes, and so on—some of these items our ancestors could not have imagined the existence of 100 years ago, let alone our casual attitude towards them. These things are made to be disposed of, of course. After all, there’s limited business to be had if you make the best-functioning item that won’t break and will never go out of style. None of us are immune to either kind of obsolescence, no matter how much we care for the environment and attempt to be waste-free.
I was drinking from a plastic bottle of orange juice yesterday, and as I went to recycle this piece of technology, I got to thinking about the purpose of the item and how it came to be one of thousands of many similar items for sale in the VIU cafeteria.
A How It’s Made video on YouTube shows the manufacturing process of a plastic bottle from start to finish and what I found most striking about it is the massive nature of it all. Look at any manufacturing video and you see thousands of items produced every hour. I find this kind of manufacturing to be eerie, rather than impressive. It’s so cold and precise and with nearly no human on the assembly line but everything works smoothly, it’s enough to make a person feel redundant. No wonder machines become the enemy in such films as Terminator, or television shows as Battlestar Galactica. They don’t need us for much more than to throw the switch and consume the product that they produce.
This lack of human involvement shows just how out of touch we are with the processes that produce what we use everyday. If human involvement is so minimal in making, and so little human physical effort is put in to produce an item, it’s hardly surprising that we’re okay with living in a disposable world. Nearly everything is manufactured with the intent of being discarded after use, but in a society that demands many plastic bottles (just look at them all in any given cafeteria, then multiply that by all the cafeterias and grocery stores, and so on, and that becomes an overwhelming, almost unfathomable number), manufacturing them is a very good gig if you want to stay in business.
Being anti-obsolescence towards items of this sort is good for the environment and good for us. But there’s the catch. As there are more of us on this planet, and we all want to contribute to our global culture in some way (and we strive for the rights of those who currently are not in a position to contribute—which of course we should) can we do that without obsolescence? In a word: no. The concept is not entirely as dirty as it appears since we all need jobs and opportunities and obsolescence is inevitable and necessary to ensure that. What we need is responsible obsolescence.
Life, by definition, is disposable. What lives must die, but this is a pretty bleak and dangerously simplistic view of the world that separates us from the wonderful act of life. As a species, we’re not going to be around forever. In a few billion years the sun will destroy this planet, which makes us an obsolescence on a (I hope) distant horizon. But in the meantime, as we buy and use the stuff that makes life easier, more fun, and (debatably) more fulfilling, I wonder about the coffee mug in my hand, the backpack on my back, and the shoes on my feet. All of these are part of a mass-produced process, and all of these items will at some point be discarded. No matter how much I love my coffee mug.