Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Book Review: “Understanding Planned Obsolescence”

with 3 comments


There is something very post modern about this review. I was offered a copy of this new book (out 3 January 2017) to review, but what I got was an ebook hobbled by Digital Rights Management. It expires in a month and I am not allowed to cut and paste any quotations from it. Now I may not know much about copyright but I do understand the concept of “fair use”: which includes quotation!

I am going to cut and paste what I can from  the blurb on netgalley and the publisher’s press release. (see below the line)

The reason that I wanted to read the book was my irritation at getting this tweet


The iPad mini in question is less than two years old. I have determined by reference to the book that I am not alone in this experience, and indeed it appears to be a long established policy of Apple. Indeed within the product cycle, the life of the hardware is prescribed – and there will inevitably come a day, long before the device in question is beyond repair, when its operating system will not get updated any more. There is a case in the book of the iPod whose battery life was designed to be 18 months, and the battery could not be replaced by the user. There is also a documented legal case of an iPod mini designed and sold as an adjunct to exercise which failed when it came into contact with human sweat. Apple’s advertising showed the device attached to human bodies under exertion!

There is nothing new about planned obsolescence.  I read Vance Packard’s The Wastemakers at East Ham Grammar School when I studied A Level Economics (1964-66). Everybody knows about GM’s policy of annual model changes based simply on design as opposed to technical innovation. And the cartel of lightbulb makers who made their products fail earlier so that they could sell more of them. My Dad told me about British carmaker Armstrong Siddeley that went bust because their cars were built to last – and no-one ever bought another one having no need since the first one they got was so well made and reliable. I fully expect my 2007 Toyota Yaris to see me out – unless there is a sea change at the strata council and I could install a charger for an electric car. Or Modo relents and puts a shared car in our neighbourhood.

If you are a student then you will be comfortable reading this book. It is remarkably short – I read it cover to cover in two hours or so – and is well annotated and referenced. It does acknowledge Brexit – which will probably remove British consumers from all the EU protection offered to consumers, which is remarkably advanced compared to North America. But was obviously written pre Trump. With leaders like Trudeau and Clark we cannot expect anything other than continuing adherence to the best interests of their funders. And just as the fossil fuel industries will ignore the carbon bubble for as long as possible, we can confidently expect the 0.01% and the corporations they control to continue to ignore both the pile up of garbage and pollution and the growing shortage of critical raw materials (like rare earths) as long as their profits increase and remain largely untaxed. So acquiring this book if you are an activist and wishing to bring about some change is likely to disappointing.

But if you are really in need of an education in the theory of planned obsolescence this might be worth forty quid to you (CAN$66.45 at the time of writing). But as far as prescriptions go, there’s not much. The certainty that the “current hegemonic paradigm will not allow humans to remain on this planet much longer” – and therefore the need to “walk in search of new patterns, new models, new meanings to then build new paths, new paradigms”.

And that is about it.



Written by Stephen Rees

December 19, 2016 at 3:38 pm

3 Responses

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  1. After three very damaging PC crashes in a 23-year period at work where I lost major project drawings and written records, I was determined to delve into the world of Apple and look into purchasing a souped-up iMac early in the new year for home use. With the information you provided above, I am having second thoughts.

    This is frustrating to say the least!

    Alex Botta

    December 23, 2016 at 9:52 am

  2. Until this past release Apple was still supporting iMacs from 2007 with the latest operating system. Getting a decade of free upgrades is a pretty amazing thing. For those on the other side of the fence Windows 10 will install and run acceptably on some pretty old hardware too.

    As for phones and tablets, long term support is poor at best. There are many reasons but the cell phone industry is mostly to blame. With a large number of customers on 2 year contracts that include some or all of the price of the phone, there’s a huge number of people replacing “perfectly good” phones every 2 years. Some are handed down, but many are dumped into various and sundry electronics recycling programs. I consider 2-year lifespans an environmental disaster no matter what recycling spin is put on them. With so many “old” phones getting trashed after just two years there’s little incentive to provide software support for much longer than that. Tablets run phone operating systems so even though they tend to have long lifespans they lose their software support after just a few years.

    Apple pushes updates to their iPhones for about 4 years from the date of original introduction. If you buy an older model you’ll get fewer years before getting cut off.

    Owners of other phones are usually dependent on their carrier to provide updates, something the cell phone companies rarely bother to do. Some models of phone never receive a single update. There are hundreds of millions of cell phones running old operating systems with gaping security holes just waiting to be exploited.

    Oh and Alex, the iMac is ripe for a hardware update so I’d hold off buying one until the 2017 models come out.


    December 24, 2016 at 12:29 am

  3. David, thank you for this helpful information. I hope the new iMacs come out soon.

    Alex Botta

    December 29, 2016 at 4:09 pm

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