Planned obsolescence – how Big Tech manipulates consumers to spend again and again

by Manal al-Sharif | Oct 7, 2021 | Business

“Your smartphone has a built-in frailty that will force it to fail in approximately 2-3 years.” Manal al-Sharif reports on how Big Tech designs products to fail so they can sell us another again.

Have you ever felt manipulated to do something you didn’t really need to do, but were convinced to do it anyway?

Until you realize how easily it is for your mind to be manipulated, you remain the puppet of someone else’s game.

Evita Ochel, educator and writer

As consumers, we are being manipulated by the media, big companies, and politicians all the time. It’s their game. And they’re good at it. Big Tech in particular is getting craftier in their search for new and better ways to manipulate consumer purchasing behaviour.

Planned obsolescence is an integral part of their strategy. The policy of designing a consumer product to fail before its natural lifespan. The purpose of this is to compel consumers to buy the newer model within long before they really need to.

For example, your smartphone has a built-in frailty that will force it to fail in approximately 2-3 years. This isn’t because the phone itself will reach the end of its natural life in that time, but rather because it fits the manufacturer’s marketing plans and sales quotas.

Tech companies use four main techniques to ensure their consumer devices will be cast aside for newer models:

  1. Hardware malfunction
  2. Repair hindrance
  3. Software and hardware discontinuation
  4. Cultural obsolescence

Hardware malfunction

Your smartphone contains a Lithium-ion battery that will begin to falter after approximately 300-500 charge cycles. If you have an Apple iPhone, that battery is glued in place and protected by proprietary Pentalobe screws, making it difficult and expensive to replace. Because a newer version of your phone will come out every two to three years, it becomes hard to justify paying for a costly battery replacement when you can put that money towards a new phone.

Repair hindrance

Expensive battery replacement is only one annoyance that can arise when trying to keep a phone for more than a few years. If your device breaks, you won’t find any manufacturer-sanctioned repair guides online. And repairs covered under warranty often take weeks or months to complete.

And if you break your smartphone screen, be prepared to pay a high premium on through the manufacturer or their authorised retailers.

The choice offered to you is clear: either pay high costs to have the manufacturer repair the device or buy a new one. Any personal agency demonstrated outside of these two options leaves you on your own with a void warranty.

Software and hardware discontinuation

If the repair costs aren’t substantial enough to entice you into buying a new phone, the manufacturer will likely only support your device with software updates for a short time, often compromising security as well as the functionality of your device beyond that artificial cut-off.

Android device manufacturers like Google typically stop supporting software updates of their smartphones after 3 years. Therefore the phone also becomes vulnerable to hacks and software malfunctions. The device becomes technologically obsolete.

And when Apple released their new wireless AirPod headphones in 2018, while simultaneously removing the headphone jack from the existing iPhone, it forced millions of consumers to purchase the new AirPods and discard their old headphones.

Cultural obsolescence

In 2020, Samsung released 15 new smartphone models, while Apple released 5 new iPhones. In the same year, the top smartphone producers sold 1.38 billion devices globally.

The new releases are accompanied by flashy ad campaigns, seducing you with the latest updates. It’s hard not to ask yourself, “Am I missing out by not upgrading?” Before you know it, you’re trading in your perfectly good smartphone for the manufacturer’s “Best Phone Ever”.

Your fear of missing out, FOMO, is momentarily quelled, at least until next time

Cultural obsolescence is Big Tech’s most cunning technique. Its amounts to psychological manipulation, apealing to your personal convenience, aesthetic presentation and maintaining status with your peers. And it goes way beyond our smartphones.

Planned obsolescence is present in almost everything we consume – laptops, kitchen appliances, cars and sporting gear to name just a few. It generates big profits for the companies that engage in this practice, and it is virtually impossible to regulate.

Environmental impact

Another effect of planned obsolescence is how it adds to to a the enormous increase of e-waste. In 2019, e-waste reached 53.6 million tons globally, which is a 21% increase in e-waste production in the past five years. Only 17 per cent of that e-waste was recycled. The rest went to landfills or was illegally shipped from higher-income countries to lower-income countries.

Moreover, the manufacturing process to create one phone, tablet or other “smart” device emits 40-80 kg of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When we throw away a device prematurely, rather than utilizing it for as long as possible or recycling it, we further deplete the planet of rare-earth elements used to create the next one.

Fighting back

Governments and activists are starting to create awareness and to take action. Europe’s Green New Deal includes a Circular Economy Action Plan which is designed to reduce the use of natural resources, create less waste, and empower average consumers. Europe has also been leading the push for a universal charger for smartphones to reduce waste related to consumer electronics.

A global collective of law experts recently crafted a legal definition of ‘Ecocide’ meant to aid lawmakers when prosecuting big corporations for environmental decimation.

Ecocide is officially defined as

Unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.

The hope is that Ecocide will eventually be added to the list of International Criminal Court crimes that can be prosecuted.

The Right to Repair movement has gained significant traction in the past few years. Activists in the EU, US, and Australia aligned with the movement have helped spur the introduction and passage of legislation to force manufacturers to provide access to repair knowledge and tools.

France introduced an anti-waste law in 2020 that has created a repair index for electronics and appliances. Shoppers are now greeted with color-coded labels that define a product’s ease of reparability.

But it is also up to us. To find out more, and to learn what we can all do to combat the manipulation of Big Tech and help reduce e-waste, check out the Tech4Evil podcast.

Manal al-Sharif is an author, speaker, human rights activitist and a regular contributor to international media. She has written for the Time, the NY Times and Washington Post. Her Amazon bestseller memoir, Daring to Drive: a Saudi Woman's Awakening, is an intimate story of her life growing up in one of the most masculine societies in the world.

Manal is a cybersecurity expert and host of the podcast that discusses the intersection of technology and human rights.

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