One Hoss Shay And Our Society Of Obsolescence

Legend has it that Henry Ford would send engineers out to junkyards all over the US looking for Fords. They were supposed to study each one they found and make note of any parts that had not failed. But it wasn’t so that he could start making all of those parts stronger. Instead, Ford allegedly used this data to determine where he could cut corners in future production runs so as not to waste money by making any part last longer than any other part.

Most things tend to break down rather than completely giving out. Usually it’s only one or two components that stop working and the rest of it is still serviceable. And this is a good thing. It’s what lets us repair PCBs or scavenge parts off them, drive our cars longer, and help save each other’s lives through organ donor programs. Can you imagine how different life would be if each part of every thing failed at the same time?

Where cars go to rest in pieces. Image via Sometimes Interesting.
Where cars go to rest in pieces. Image via Sometimes Interesting.

Planned Obsolescence

The clothes and shoes we wear, houses we live in, and the tools and objects we reach for every day are simply not built to last. Some people will tell you that nothing is made like it used to be. Whether that’s true or not, the things of yesteryear still broke down eventually.

Building things to last isn’t really an effective business model anyway. For instance, auto makers have to make their cars safe and reliable, but they also need to keep customers coming back. So year after year, they introduce new models that are sleeker, safer, and have cooler features.

Most any thing that humans can make is only as strong as its weakest point. This is especially true for those things that move, like cars. Before cars, it was horse-driven carriages of all sizes and stripes, including small ones driven by a single horse. A ride in one of these was unsettlingly bumpy by default.

A Carriage Built for Two

In the fields of statistics and economics, there is something called a model of depreciation. One of these, called the light bulb model, refers to a good that gives the same level of service throughout its lifespan. In other words, a thing that actually does wear out rather than break down. We buy light bulbs expecting them to illuminate at the flick of a switch. One day they just give up the ghost. There’s really no fixing a light bulb, and they have no scrap value.

Ye olde one hoss shay. Image via Wikipedia
Ye olde one hoss shay. Image via Wikipedia

This example of sudden and total depreciation is also known as the One Hoss Shay model. The name comes from informal American speech for ‘one-horse chaise’, a carriage driven by a single horse that is large enough for two people. The one hoss shay was immortalized by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his poem “The Deacon’s Masterpiece, or The Wonderful One Hoss Shay: A Logical Story”.

In the poem, a deacon laments the fact that carriages break down due to weakness at one place or another. Forget assembly lines and cutthroat business practices–these were usually built locally by enterprising villagers. The deacon deduces that if he were to build a one hoss shay using the finest materials from

The lifespan of the one hoss shay. Image via Sketchplanations
The lifespan of the one hoss shay. Image via Sketchplanations

top to bottom, it would have no weaknesses and would therefore endure forever. So the deacon decides to build the most reliable one hoss shay there ever could logically be, in accordance with the Puritan principles that critics of the era believed Oliver Wendell Holmes to be satirizing.

And build it he does. Every part of it is equally as strong as every other part. This marvel of logical construction lasts and lasts through a parade of decades and deacons, providing perfect service all the while. But as Holmes says, logic is logic, and eventually it catches up to the shay. Exactly one hundred years to the day that the deacon finished it, the whole thing collapses in a heap of particulates, causing the current deacon embarrassment and a sore behind.

The Future of Modular Design

For today’s chariots, the end of this depreciation model would mean a lot more than just dusty pants and injured pride.  Whether something breaks down or completely wears out, it’s usually inconvenient for the user. This is especially true with something like smart phones. When they break down, they usually have to be replaced entirely. A couple of companies like Fairphone and Google are working to create architectures for modular phones. With this kind of interchangeability, you could easily replace, say, the camera module in your phone whether it broke or you just plain wanted a better one.

Google's modular phone, known as Project Ara. Image via Wikipedia
Google’s modular phone, known as Project Ara. Image via Wikipedia

The advantages of modular smart phones go far beyond swapping camera modules and maxing out memory. The biggest issue with wide adoption of this kind of paradigm shift is getting people interested in the first place. Offering special features that no other phone has is a pretty good start.

Modular systems with recyclable parts may be the best that we can do in the future to keep down waste as well as prices. What would you do to ease the pains of planned obsolescence?

86 thoughts on “One Hoss Shay And Our Society Of Obsolescence

  1. If you could actually manage a one-hoss-shay model with modern gadgets (with accompanying cost efficiency) that would be great. What we have now is the worst of both models, where a typical gadget fails because of a weakness in just one part, but it’s designed and manufactured so that replacing that one part often costs more than just sending the thing to the recycling pyre and getting a new one. Either modular and easy-to-fix (which I don’t have that much hope for) or everything built to the same level of endurance so that people don’t end up chasing the will o’ the wisp of “simple” repair.

    1. Sometimes that is the best way to get manufacturing costs and waste the lowest. Also, a huge part of many products today is regulation. In the US, the EPA sets limits on the emissions of small gas engines like for leaf blowers or lawn mowers or chainsaws. The only practical way to meet the requirements, since people are not likely to comply with turning them in and and getting a new one, is to built to fail. A home model weed whip hits its limit at around 50 hours. A commercial unit or more costly warranted home unit, say used by city parks grounds crews, at 300 hours. If they are not engineered to fail somewhere not too far beyond that period, the manufacturer will be in trouble.

      I knew a man when I was a kid who flew 105 P47 mission on bomber escort out of Duxford, England. He told me once about a guy who was inspecting every plane that returned and making sketches. He was only interested in battle damage. The man I knew saw the sketches and they were composites of damage from many planes. He asked the guy if he was doing a project about where the planes get hit the most. The fellow said yes, in a way. He was making a sketch that told where planes got hit that did not return – the areas that showed no battle damage in his composites were the most vulnerable.

      That seems more like Ford’s way of thinking plus the parts you find that are never broken are probably over-engineered. But you can get a lot of that information from the spare parts ordered by dealers. Maybe he was collecting info on damage caused in collisions.

      1. Wow I didn’t know I was required by US regulation to turn in my old string trimmer or whatever and purchase a newer one. Who do do we turn them into? Yes regulation cost if it results in less pollution and fewer injuries/fatalities in auto accidents, the cost may be worth it. but hey he was giving people jobs. costs.pollution and safer vehicles is good trade off. Yea monitoring replacement part orders would given Ford the data. he needed, but hey he was giving people jobs

        1. The point was that the little motors won’t run with reasonable emissions after they’ve been in use for X number of hours because they wear down and dirty up and go out of tune, and the people won’t maintain them properly.

          If they were kept in use for longer the emissions levels would rise, some research organization would point it out, and eventually the EPA would jump on the manufacturer and invent all sorts of sanctions to “incentivise” them to produce motors that would meet the emission specs for 5-10-20 years down the line.

          Implementing proper emissions controls in a weed-whacker would make it incredibly complex, fault-prone and costly to the point that nobody would buy one, so the manufacturer takes the only practically feasible way out and makes the motors break soon after X hours, so people wouldn’t be able to use them past their prime and the EPA stays happy.

  2. Especially for cell phones it makes the least sense. 1. many break due to mechanical stress or water: those will also ruine a modular phone to the degree that it makes no sense to repair. 2: the most expensive parts are the ones that also keep evolving: screen and CPU w/ memory.

    1. I don’t know what the current plan is, but the previous Project Ara plans for magnetic locks and contact-less data transfer could make individual modules more readily stress/water resistant compared to a monolith device. So a drop into a puddle may still be as likely to damage the screen or sound output modules, but memory/radio modules could potentially be much more durable.

    2. A teeny drop of water took out my last phone. It worked, first the screen steamed up, but eventually dried out. Then a little while after it stopped charging. I’m pretty sure the water was to blame somehow. So if I could just replace the power circuits, I’d have been able to keep all the expensive parts running.

      Yes, I tried the bag of rice…

        1. Across of course, going along the rows is no big challenge.
          It’s even stated in the wikipedia link, History section, end of first paragraph:
          “Most famous, was the design brief requirement be able to drive across a ploughed field while carrying eggs, that the envisaged smallholder customer would be taking to market, without breaking them.”

  3. “Building things to last isn’t really an effective business model anyway.” You are right, in `civilization think’. However, civilization is within the Environment of our planet. The Environment does not build things to last, but it does ensure that all the components of what it builds (e.g., living things) can be assimilated by the Environment at end of life. The civilized don’t worry about that, and thus we civilized have landfills. By this and many, many other examples of Environmentally idiotic behavior , the civilized are challenging the Environment to an utterly futile contest — a contest the Environment certainly will not lose.

    Every thing each manufacturer makes should remain the responsibility of the manufacturer until every one of its components is returned to the Environment in a form the Environment can assimilate at a rate commensurate with the civilized use rate. Otherwise, we civilized will drown in our detritus (e.g., landfills) or we will starve for resources (e.g., fossil fuels. For this reason alone, the time to live of civilization is limited — by the behavior of the civilized themselves.

    1. I think that land fills will recycle just as well as natural lava flows given the same time scale. The carcass of a large animal will sterilize a piece of grass land for several years. The more arid, the longer the effect and the plants the first colonize the spot are not the same as the surrounding grasses, meaning on a local scale, say for an ant colony, there has been “natural” total environmental devastation. Trees in a pine forest compete for light and kill all the lesser plants putting vast areas under permanent environmental stress – as far as other trees and plants are concerned. So, don’t be an ant or a plant.

    2. In the current economy, there is no incentive for manufacturers to design products to be easily recycled, at least in the electronics realm. However, there have been plenty of successful programs in other areas. Bottle recycling is an obvious example and car battery recycling is another. In North America, cars actually work in a similar manner: The customer pays a deposit that is used to make recycling the vehicle worthwhile. There isn’t a good reason that we couldn’t do the same for all products…other than the fact that most of us don’t want to be held accountable for the impact of our consumption.

      Taken a step further, we could put the burden of recycling onto the manufacturer. If that happened, manufacturers would finally have the incentive they need to design products designed for longevity and recyclability.

      1. Glass bottles can be sterilized and reused indefinitely. They once were made to last, and not as fragile as people think. They used to be simply returned to the bottling plant to clean and refill them, and when consumers returned empty bottles from a previous purchase, their cost would be deducted from the next. This was simple, cheap and made sense.

        But now we’re breaking, melting, and then making them anew. Not only the damaged bottes, but ALL of them. This takes a stupid huge amount of energy, which comes at a very high cost, both economical and environmental, which is passed on to the consumer.

        But hey, we’re “recycling”, so it must be OK… right?

        1. I can’t find a good citation on that, but I remember hearing that the chemicals they used to sterilize the bottles were actually pretty nasty stuff that was much more harmful to the environment than a little bit of broken glass here and there.

          1. A kid could get enough money for lunch by picking up bottles along the road in the early 1960’s. It is the cost of a customer finding something disgusting in a bottle that was not cleaned well and going to the press. End of returnable bottles. Or as they say in Texas, DRT – Dead Right There. Nothing to do with energy.

          2. The glass bottles had several disadvantages going for them

            1) they weigh a ton and take up lots of space, on both delivery and return, which made the logistics diffficult and inefficient
            2) they’re washed with steam and sodium hydroxide, which still requires a ton of energy
            3) even though many bottles would last for decades, there was still broken glass everywhere on the roadsides, on pavements, in beaches…

            Aluminium cans and plastic bottles just make more sense. The recycling mechanism is far simpler and they’re lighter and take up less space in the delivery truck. Aluminium is recycled almost 100% but plastic isn’t because it’s too cheap to be recycled back into bottles. It’s simply shredded and blown into packaging peanuts etc.

        2. This isn’t the case in all places outside of the USA. In thailand the larger volume products are served in glass bottles albeit with no deposit for return to the consumer only the retailer. It is just passed on as a sale discount but the bottles don’t leave the retailer. So beer, coke, est and the like are still very much recycled.

          So while here they have decided to recycle the bottles non destructively, doesn’t mean it makes sense for everyone though.

          1. I’m pretty sure in e US we aren’t destroying serviceable returnable bottles. A lot of our beer is is in one time use glass bottle.. Where the delivery trucks return to the warehouse with lighter loads offsets some of the energy input in making new one time use bottles.

        3. It’s still better to make glass from old glass, than it is to make it from sand. So there’s a saving there.

          I dunno what happened to the old milk bottles, bottles of pop also used to be glass, with a deposit on them. I suppose plastic bottles being much cheaper is what killed it. Pop also seems much cheaper now, with budget brands we didn’t have back in the 1980s. We used to have a guy who came round with something like a milk float selling pop in all sorts of wonderful flavours you don’t get any more, in 1 litre glass bottles. I suppose the profit margins on it have shrunk a lot. Though for basically water + sugar it must still be pretty profitable.

          It might also be something to do with supermarkets getting much bigger. The economy of food has changed radically over the last few decades.

          1. The profit margins on soda are huge. I worked for a Restaurant in the mid-90’s and IIRC, the paper cups were somewhere South of 5 cents per. The place charged between $2 or $3 per cup. Soda worked out to be around 1.5 cents per twenty or thirty ounces. This was twenty years ago so I might be off.

            Point is, one would have to get a lot of refills to get a return on their $2.50 in 1995. It’s why places like McDonalds charge $1 nowadays. The margins are still large enough to make a heady profit.

          2. It’s actually quite difficult to recycle glass, because all glass isn’t the same glass.

            Different glasses have different formulations, and mixing them creates substandard, or even dangerous results.

            It’s the same problem as with plastics recycling. Despite the markings on the parts, it’s not practically possible to have a system where people wouldn’t throw PE in with PP, or where companies would actually bother to rip a junked product apart to separate the plastics.

            With glass bottles, people would chuck a brown soda-lime glass bottle into a collection bank with borosilicate beer bottles etc. so the generic glass collection point glass would basically become roadfill – it wouldn’t be good for anything serious.

            The recycled product degrades and cannot be used for its original purpose. The only way you could recycle the glass is at the re-filling factory where you can be sure the glass is the same, but you have a continuous loss of material because the bad bottles break at the customer instead and get thrown in the collection bin where they mix with other glasses and become useless.

        4. I believe it’s less expensive to make glass from virgin materials, I’m not sure how much of returnables are be broken up. Has been decades since I have seen a returnable pop bottle, except that old Mountain Dew bottle I hung onto for some reason. On the delivery side is where the returables add waste glass is heavy the truck haul the glass to the store, and haul the glass back to the bottling plant.

          1. I saw bottles with date stamps from the 70’s in the 90’s.

            The problem was that the bottles were broken up a lot. A huge portion of the bottles were simply lost from circulation because they were too cumbersome to carry around and return. People would throw them everywhere.

    1. Not “burning bright” is exactly why it lasted so long, as more brightness means greater filament temperature which in turn means material migrating away from the filament faster, making it weaker and weaker until it fails.
      Overbuilding things tends to make them more durable.
      However, being so dim also means two things – poor efficiency (even for an incandescent bulb) and poor usability, since it’s so dim…
      Overbuilt usually means over-something else, be it overweight or overpriced.

    2. Probably an original carbon filament and vacuum bulb. If they are not moved, they can run for 100 years and get “dimmer” as carbon plates the inside. Modern bulbs are tungsten and pressurized with argon to prevent evaporation of the filament and allow convective cooling. Well, modern except not compact fluorescent or LED :-)

      1. If it’s an original Edison carbon filament bulb, it won’t last for very long even if you run it dim.

        Reason being that the plain carbon filament has a positive temperature coefficient, which means it goes lower in resistance the hotter it gets. As the bulb burns the carbon sublimates slowly and the filament gets thinner in places, which makes it run hotter, which makes it pass more current, which makes it evaporate faster… etc.

        Eventually it flashes out.

        The later developed carbon bulbs would put kerosene vapor in the bulb and flash the filament to form a layer of graphite on top, to “metallize” the carbon before drawing the vacuum.

  4. Of course the big problem is that things built to last also discourage large scale improvement. Yes one could have built a car in the Fifties that would be still running today, but it would in the end be a 1950’s car and modern cars are far more efficient, far more safe, and far more comfortable. While there may be an argument for products that do not fail once they have reached the pinnacle of development, thing in that class are rare. Furthermore the expense of something like an automobile that would last an exceedingly long time, like an automobile, would likely put its cost beyond the budget of most potential buyers. There is a balance that needs to be struck here.

    1. And that is the eternal lament of the aviation community, where (due to regulations requiring regular maintenance and replacement of warn out parts) airplanes are still flying today that were 40, 50, and 60 years ago. And while this means that a 50 year old airplane flies nearly as well as it did when it rolled off the assembly line 50 years ago, there are 50 years of safety improvements and 50 years of new technology that will only see the light of day in very expensive brand-new airplanes.

        1. I think that this points out an advantage to modular design. A car built in the 1950’s or a car built now is still in essence a box with a wheel in each corner that takes people places. If you made it easy and fast (read cheap) to swap out standardised units ( engines, brakes etc. ) as more effective technology comes along, you can extend the lifetime.

          1. Unfortunately there is a limit to how much of that you can do with something like a car, because modifications of the sort you are considering are non trivial engineering problems. For an aircraft it might be cost effective because of the high price of replacing the airframe and the amount of use the airplane gets.

    2. I remember a documentary about car safety, they showed a 1950s American car with a handy padded shelf in front of the driver. Beneath the leatherette and foam was a sheet of steel! Pretty sharp when you’re flying towards it at 50mph with no seatbelts. Apparently the design had decapitated people in the past.

      Even giving it a turned, rounded edge, would perhaps have saved a few people from being buried in 2 separate coffins. Even without extravagances like seat belts.

    3. Sure they are. Dodge put a Hemi v8 in a pickup in the 1950s then ran it continuously for hours. It averaged 22mpg. Couple of years ago, Ford bragged about their 3.5 ecoboost that got 21mpg. 50 years, and we lost 1 mile to the gallon.

      1. well that’s more a reflection of how average fuel consumption is calculated these days as compared to the. Comparisons like this are useless unless the testing protocols are the same.

      2. There’s also the additional power requirements of the modern vehicle? Power steering, power brakes, seat warmers, DC/AC converters, computers, a network, digital displays, full entertainment centers. All those devices don’t run for free.

        Octane levels have reduced in the past 50 years as well. They weren’t consistent in the past 50 years but 102 octane is still a noticeable difference from the 85/87 octane available now.

      3. Fuel consumption in the 1950s was not a major consideration. Compare your Dodge V8 with my ten year old and thus relatively modern Volvo. I get 50mpg or better. Its current counterpart does even better. It is possible to improve the original design parameters, but only by evolution, and therein lies the paradox. My Kenwood Chef food mixer from the 1980s is just as good at making cake batter as its 1960s counterpart, and its modern cousin. This is an example of a product that is simple enough to not benefit hugely from iterative design. Any differences are largely cosmetic, an improved solid state speed controller being the most obvious exception. Cars and smartphones on the other hand, certainly do benefit from redesign.

  5. “… architectures for modular phones. With this kind of interchangeability, you could easily replace, say, the camera module in your phone whether it broke or you just plain wanted a better one.”

    By putting the camera on an interchangeable module, it becomes bigger, heavier, and more expensive.

    It’s also more fallible, because you’ve added bus connectors (plus the fragile lead-free solder joints for them).

    And as for the bus itself, it might be a multipurpose bus, supporting more than just cameras. Or it might be dedicated to cameras, but designed to exceed the bandwidth and requirements of the current camera module in an attempt to future-proof it. Either way, the camera module is going to require more complex bus circuitry, so that’s more expense and more power consumption.

    But in a few years, there will probably be cameras exceeding the bus capability anyway. Or perhaps a new and improved bus or module footprint standard, and the latest-and-greatest camera you want is only available for the new standard, not the old one your phone has. So you end up starting all over anyway.

    Modularity is great for desktop computers, and other reasonably mature products where size, weight, and power consumption aren’t much of an issue. But for miniaturized electronics like cell phones, that are advancing so ridiculously fast, I see no upside to modularity.

    “What would you do to ease the pains of planned obsolescence?”

    If something doesn’t lend itself to upgradable design, that’s fine. But at least make sure the product, if not abused, is likely to last as long as the user finds it useful. For many users, that’s a long time. I don’t always need the latest and greatest product.

    That’s easier than it sounds, because there’s only a few things which are particularly likely to break.

    Batteries are an exception to modular design, they should ALWAYS be easily replaceable; or at least replaceable without risking damage to the product. Put a few extra cents into decent low-ESR caps rather than those that will fail in a couple of years. A few extra cents into buttons too, making sure the paint doesn’t rub off or the contacts fail.

    Grant some sensible RoHS exceptions. Some things are just too small, and subject to too much mechanical/thermal stress to ever be reliable with lead-free solder. Even if there are no mistakes in the manufacturing process, that doesn’t change basic metallurgical limitations. Total environmental impact from certain classes of products thrown away due to failed lead-free solder joints, probably negates the intent of RoHS many times over. The number of modern game consoles alone is staggering.

    1. You could probably run most phone cameras over USB 2 lines. They don’t usually do full hi-res and frame rate at the same time. Wouldn’t be hard to implement. The connectors don’t have to be full-sized and durable, the swapping out could be something left to a shop to do, doesn’t have to be done at home. Most people wouldn’t be happy to do that themselves anyway.

      As far as lead-free solder goes, things don’t seem to be any less reliable. I’d want some proper numbers before I made that decision. Lead-free is a pain in the arse for hand-soldering, I still use the lead stuff, but factories are pretty sophisticated to even make the thousands of joints in a modern games console.

  6. Building stuff that last? And being profitable at it? Simply impossible in a society that tolerates chips in printer cartridges, DRM and similar cancers. A thousand years in the future maybe, certainly not now.

  7. If cell phone manufacturers would standardize on a smaller subset of batteries (so that a given model of battery would legitimately stay in production for more than a year or so), a great many phones would still be doing just fine. It galls me to have to replace a whole phone (and thus get back on the contract/subsidy exercise wheel for another 2 years) just because the battery won’t hold a charge and I can’t find a legit battery replacement for it (fleabay/lameazon generic batteries scare me, big time… and they’re never actually capable of holding anywhere near the charge at which they’re rated).

    It’s convenient for everyone but the consumer/end-user (and the environment) to have the standard cell phone battery start to crap out at the 18 month mark so that by the consumer makes it to the end of their 24 month obligation period (contract, lease, whatever you call it… it’s still the same thing) they’re ready/desperate to get into a new phone… that’s a prime example of planned obsolescence, and it disgusts me.

    Manufacturers have, for the most part (screw you, crapple!), committed to the USB micro port as the de facto charger connection. Why not standardize on 10 (or so) default battery package sizes with standardized connector placement, and then commit to making each one for a period of x (where x is >=4) years? Stagger the adoption of new battery sizes out so that things are still constantly updating, but that a given battery model/type is guaranteed to be around for a substantial period of time. True technological change (network tx/rx standards, phone dimensions/ratios, large changes is power demands) really isn’t happening much faster than that, and those who wish to use their phones until truly unrepairable could do so. This wouldn’t require any new demands on battery chemistries, and it would cut slightly (but very little, in reality) into new phone sales, but it would keep some phones out of the landfill that much longer (so carriers could easily pitch it as “green”), and it would certainly increase customer loyalty among carriers. The hidden dark side of battery obsolescence is that when a consumer’s phone dies, there’s now a significant likelihood that they’ll jump ship to another carrier (for a variety of reasons). Give people the option to replace their batteries periodically, and they’re more likely to keep their spending in the same place for that much longer of a time.

    It will never happen, but it’s a nice dream.

    1. The new USB standard has a reversible tiny port (like “Crapple” as you say – who is your choice for the Porsche of computing and communication tech? Reversible? You are kidding! Who would have ever thought of such a thing – excerpt EVERYONE the first time they used USB!

    2. It’s true, would be a nice idea, and so simple, just to decide on some proper battery sizes and connectors. Most batteries are only a couple of mm away from a few potentially standard sizes.

      Batteries aren’t a high-profit item for manufacturers, and they’re rarely replaced, most people replace their phone before the battery wears out. So there isn’t a huge profitable market for replacements, that any manufacturer would be missing out on. Would even make things a bit cheaper for them to manufacture.

      I wonder why they don’t do it? They did the same thing with chargers, with the eventual aim being to stop including chargers with new phones, people could use their old ones. That still hasn’t happened yet. I suppose because chargers aren’t expensive enough to risk unnerving the customer by not including one.

  8. Over specing a product does have benefits. As an electrician I always try to encourage customers to put more light in a room then they think they need because you can always put a dimmer on the lights. Now as I’m writing this I don’t know that it makes sense for led bulbs, but for incandescents a 10% dim down really increases their life span and does save energy

    1. Also leds live more if underpowered, but not so long. The real saving should come by operating the led at the volts and amperes where it outputs most light/watt. Leds usually have a sweet spot were pumping more volt gives not much more light, and giving them less current make them to waste it.

  9. “What would you do to ease the pains of planned obsolescence?”

    Avoid publicly known and personal known garbage producers. One strike and I will never EVER buy that brand again. Make sure all friends, relatives, neighbours, aquaintances, … know your opinion about garbage producers with so much passion they will be ashamed to buy from one of them or never dare ask for your help. Also a good excuse to refuse help … on a specific product at least. And to spot gullable advertising belivers.

    So the question becomes which brands are better, if only slightly. You can never trust what your read on the internet. Most reviews are for garbage products and most reviewers know it. Trust your personal and your friends experiences. I had better luck with medium size brands than the big boys. If they spend big on advertising, including online reviews – which are mostly paid, you can be sure they take it from research and development money, not from profits.
    Come to think of it it’s hard for a person to choose from a multitude of complex products without an intimate understading of that product category. Ask your geek, nerd, tehnical friend. I feel like I am preaching to the choir. Or if you are the technical friend go find old products from the same company to see if there are any still working on auction websites. Garbage products rarely pass 5 years.

    1. Planned obsolescence isn’t the same thing as garbage. Planned obsolescence includes an intended lifespan of longer than “letting the payment clear then starting another Ebay account with a different name”.

      Sure you can buy from companies that don’t do planned obsolescence, if you can find one. Good luck with that!

  10. Repraps. Probably a reprap will never see a landfill, can be made from scraps, can repair itself. Core parts never go waste even if there is a strictly better design, and innovations can be implemented in old machines. Reprap build things at home, filament can be made from scraps.Many vendors for essential parts prevent monopoly. They are just the antithesis of consummerism!

  11. Modular cellphones would simply make phones super vulnerable to one of the most common failure points of modern electronic systems: the connector. All of those modules have to connect to each other, and all of the conectors add up to trouble.

  12. An example of an American company that built things to last is AT & T — before the divestiture. There equipment reliability goal was `not more than 10-minutes unexpected downtime in 40-years.’ AT & T achieved this goal with most of their equipment, including the telephones and other equipment on customer sites. In addition, they recycled just about everything they made — into refurbished equipment or back to base materials which they re-used.

    Before the divestiture, AT & T leased all equipment. Therefore long lifetime was worth it for them. They same idea could be applied to most customer equipment — lease it instead of buying it. With this, the manufacturers incentive is to make things last.

    1. And then we broke their monopoly/regulation in the name of freedom of choice and where did it get us? The monetary savings that were there are long since gone, our national communication copper infrastructure is in shambles (or worse), landfills are that much more full, overseas equipment mfg’s have dumped millions of tons of pollutants into the environment, and reliable American jobs were lost. All because we chased pennies while our way of life crumbled behind us. Bell’s primary duties were to their customers (domestic and federal) back then. Things had a certain cost, but reliability was exceptional and technological innovation was consistent. Now, what remains of Ma Bell is in fragments, mere shadows of their former selves, much like so much else in our economy, and all of our current economic players maintain that their primary duty is to their shareholders, customers be damned.

      We never learn…

  13. “What would you do to ease the pains of planned obsolescence?”
    Easy. 1) Disregard the “no user serviceable parts inside” bullshit with utter contempt; 2) Avoid buying any products for which it is actually true like the plague. Works for me brilliantly so far.

    Recently replaced the bearings on my grandma’s vacuum cleaner – still works just fine and because the dust bag is a built-in textile one I never need replacements. Not long ago my ~15yr old CRT TV literally blew up its PSU chip – they had the chip in stock at the store, it runs perfectly fine again, and I’ll totally keep it running for the next 40 years if I can. Incidentally, I also never had to go to a “licensed dealership” (or whatever they’re called) to get my 20yr old car fixed – there’s nothing in it my regular mechanic can’t fix, and I won’t be changing that any time soon either. Not having to remember PIN codes before disconnecting the battery, worry about _any_ sort of wireless tracking or vulnerability (and just not getting stranded in a parking lot unable to lock my trunk because someone is fooling around with an RF jammer – see recent-ish news…) or just being able to copy my key any time I want is just priceless. It has servo steering, ABS and airbags – I can live without having ESP and an iPod dock on it thankyouverymuch. Planned obsolescence? I’ll have none of that, sorry…

  14. Can we get over the whiny tin-foil hat “planned obsolescence” bullshit. Modern stuff is fucking amazingly cheap and reliable. Making your iPhone modular and upgradeable and future-proof would make it more expensive and less reliable and 99% of the vapid arseholes that buy the latest shiniest phone would drop it like a shitty brick in favour of the non-modular smaller lighter one.

    Also, go speak to some old folks who remember when you were lucky to get 3 years out of a new car before it fell apart, rusted away or wore out – and if you crashed it you were gone.

    I would love – LOVE – stuff to be a bit more repairable / tinkerable these days but that’s more about information availability – how the thing goes together, what does what, how to talk to it, diagnose it, etc. etc. and that needs pressure on manufacturers to open up on stuff they’ve stopped making. It would be great to have a law that says when you obsolete a thing, you should publish all the info required to keep that thing working for those who want it.

    1. it’s the “amazingly cheap” part of your lead statement that really encapsulates the whole problem. It’s cheap at time of sale, but all of the associated costs still have to be absorbed somewhere, whether that be in terms of more frequent replacement, damage to the environment, damage to the overseas workers who slave to create the device, damage to the wages of folks in the distribution chain, etc…

      Cost itself *is* a stable entity. Just because we’ve gotten better at tipping the scales to shed portions of cost by either kicking the can down the road or kicking the can around the corner just to preserve our own personal interests, doesn’t change reality. Being in denial about that simple reality is the crux of the issue.

  15. In WWII Abraham Weld did analysis on bombers that had returned from missions over Germany.
    The US Army Air Corp wanted the areas with the most holes to be better armoured, because they had the most hits.
    Wald argued that if the plane had made it back home, then those holes didn’t matter as the damage wasn’t critical. It was the other parts of the plane that didn’t have any holes that needed better armour.
    Depends how you look at things.

  16. For the phones as for computers the obsolescence doesn’t come from the hardware but from the software. Take the Galaxy note II, the system had been upgrade for two year then Samsung thinks that if you want a up to date system (security, app compatibility) you should change the phone itself (it’s true for all brands). With computers the funny thing is that for a lot of people and enterprises ,XP is still their current system and it’s working very well for most purposes (word processing, mail and internet) on computer which have something like more then five years so who really need windows 10 and a new computer ?
    The other part of the error of appreciation of so called “planned obsolescence” is the price, how many people are willing to pay what those things were costing ?

  17. I am seeing an increasing number of items that are specifically designed to fail. Case in point, an electric kettle I recently purchased. Perfectly serviceable until it failed after two months with a broken switch. On dis-assembly, I found the switch lever had broken at the point of maximum stress, and at this very point the cross sectional area had been reduced by 56 percent, by a combination of diameter reduction, a central hole, and a transverse channel. And the ruse worked – I went out and brought another kettle.

  18. One thing that’s not designed for obsolescence, over head hoists and cranes. Don’t get me wrong, I sell plenty of replacement units when people give up repairing them. but, there’s not much to revolutionize the designs of those. And some are still the same designs from the 50’s-60’s and I still sell parts for them. The parts are *not* cheap though. It is cheaper to buy the replacements than all the parts sometimes. Those are usually the parts made in China though…
    I did have a guy call and ask if I had parts for a unit built in 1895 once. Sadly, I do carry any parts for units *that* old…

  19. Beware the “Walmart Theory of Economics”, wherein you can buy an item for 1/3rd the price, but which has 1/10th the durability, and therefore the price-normalized durability is lower at the lower end of the price scale.

    This is well-state in another way, by Terry Pratchet:

    “The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

    Price non-linearity is fascinating to think about. People in general have a poor concept of non-linearity, and here it is compounded by varying effects at top and bottom end of the scales, which can be entirely different for various goods.


      1. But not even the poor really wear out their shoes – they buy new ones because the old look slightly scuffy and because you just have to have new shoes every year. They also don’t bother to maintain them, which is a kind of pre-requisite if you plan to use any pair of boots for 10 years.

        The “boots” theory only works with people who are so poor that they have to wear rags because they can barely afford to eat – most of the “poor” who are complaining about unfairness actually can afford to eat, and they can afford to buy the better shoes, but they simply choose to spend their money on pointless junk and trivialities.

        It’s not about affording the better stuff, but being too stupid with your money to buy it. You see people complaining about their welfare checks being late while eating at McD and talking into an iPhone. That’s not poverty – that’s idiocy.

        On the flipside, the rest of the society pretty much runs because of idiots with money, because 80% of the economy is based on “services”, which is basically convincing someone to buy junk so you could take a cut in between.

  20. What about a law that makes a company display estimated product durability for any product mandatory.
    Companies could then be made accountable if their product does not last as advertised.

    Then, by taxation, another law would make product that last shorter more taxable than products that last longer (as per advertised durability of the product by the company itself).

    That would level the playfield for durable products and remove economics incentives to make cheaper products.

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