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Phones and Planned Obsolescence

News Story

Did you recently buy a new phone that within months, is already old news? This month's PACEspectives tackles this ever-present technological trend.

New year, new phone? At least that's what it always seems like. With the recent controversy surrounding Apple and their older phones, this month's PACEspectives looks into the idea of planned obsolescence, and how the concept impacts our economy, our psychological well-being, and more.

Todd Yarbrough, PhD
Clinical Assistant Professor, Economics
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

The concept of planned obsolescence originates in the early 1920s with the saturation of the automobile in the United States, and gave rise to the now common practice of automobile companies releasing annual models of their respective vehicles. Not surprisingly, the concept was adapted for marketing purposes and now constitutes a basic business strategy employed by the smart phone, computer, fashion, and many other industries.

While the practice of planned obsolescence has clear benefits to firms and consumers alike, it also has some decidedly negative consequences. First, the practice of continually producing and marketing new and improved products to consumers produces a tremendous amount of pollution and waste, especially if older models cannot be resold, refurbished, or otherwise recycled. Second, the psychological effects are less known, but obsolescence would exacerbate any negative consequences arising from continuous engagement with markets. These consequences may include overspending, hoarding, and an inability to separate pleasure from material gains. Lastly, the rise of planned obsolescence also appears correlated with poor labor conditions, specifically in developing countries. As the speed of production becomes necessarily faster with each new model and growing consumer base, factory workers are further strained under increasingly high expectations.

Economics is uniquely interested in trade-offs. Here, those trade-offs involve our material want for new and improved products with the social costs of a more materialistic and consumption based economic system.

Paul Griffin, PhD
Associate Professor, Director of PhD in Mental Health Counseling, Psychology
Dyson College of Arts and Sciences

More than a decade ago on a lecture focused on the psychology of happiness, I noted to my students my own reluctance to upgrade to a “smartphone.” My concerns were rooted in a well-known finding: humans are excellent at habituating. I pointed out that I was perfectly content with my current flip phone, just as I had been content when I owned no cellphone at all. Once I upgraded to the newer model, I would no doubt love the many conveniences afforded by such a device (You mean to tell me that I can store my whole music library here?), and most likely be immediately happier for it. What I also knew was that the technology high would be temporary, yet my addiction to these new conveniences solidified. There would be no turning back.

Science be damned! I eventually caved, and what was predicted has come to pass. Four models later, I continue to enjoy the wonders of a mini computer in my pocket, and I am no happier for it. This is not a terrible thing per se, unless we consider the potential costs. First, there is the literal cost of buying items we don’t necessarily need. Second, and more ominous, are the intrusions of technology into our social lives. Are smartphones ruining relationships and stunting social-emotional development? Some psychologists believe this to be the case. I am usually skeptical about such pronouncements, but I think there is enough evidence to at least be alarmed.

But I am not ready to ditch my smartphone just yet. I need to try out the iPhone X before I make a decision.