How will life be in the year 3017

Planned obsolescence or welcome short life?

We imagine it is the year 3017 AD. An archeology team is on the now uninhabited European continent, digging for traces of the beginning of the 21st century. After digging through the meter-thick layers of the last Ice Age, the researchers find traces of a bygone civilization. What are our descendants digging up? Most likely a huge pile of junk.

3.5 million tons of waste were produced around the world every day in 2010, and this amount is expected to almost double by 2025 and triple by 2100. In 2014, 13.5 kg of waste per person per day were generated in the EU alone. And a large, steadily growing proportion of it will still be findable in the distant future and also be quite toxic: electronic waste. In the coming year, 50 million tons of electronic waste are expected to be generated worldwide.

The archaeologists from the future have already expected mountains of electronic waste, as their ancestors are known for their obsession with electronics. But one result of the excavation surprised them: A large part of the analyzed devices still works or could have been repaired very easily. They were also used very little and often only for a very short time. Many found objects also seem to have been constructed so badly and cheaply that future scientists are surprised that they even worked. And she is even more astonished: why resources had been used up in the first place to produce something that was hardly useful. What was going on with the people at the turn of the last millennium?

If the archaeologists had access to the digital archives of the newspapers and news sites of the beginning of the 21st century, the answer to their question would be as clear as it is simple: The device manufacturers are responsible. An analysis of the content of around 200 articles from regional and national newspapers on the subject of short life since 2000 showed that so-called planned obsolescence plays the main role in the vast majority of the texts. Planned obsolescence, according to popular belief, is the deliberate - some even believe fraudulently - shortening the lifespan of products by product developers.

In 2011, the documentary »Buy for the Garbage Dump« by Cosima Dannoritzer impressively showed some historical and current cases in which technological research and development was apparently used to make consumer goods more short-lived than to get the best out of them. This film sparked a lively discourse internationally, but especially in Germany and the German media. Since then, the topic has been a long-running issue, including the founding of associations such as MurksNeinDanke e.V. and various research projects such as studies by the Federal Environment Agency, but also legislative initiatives such as the French law against planned obsolescence.

What many of these activities have in common with their representation in the media is a more linear perspective on the phenomenon of obsolescence or short-lived consumer goods. They are often based on a more rationalist image of both manufacturers and consumers. That is, they are said to make calculated decisions in order to maximize their utility - be it utility through financial gain or through pure enjoyment.

This perspective is underpinned, especially in the media presentations, by the same example cases over and over again, such as the lightbulb cartel, which reduced the burning time of lightbulbs in the 1930s, or the manipulation of printer software that reduced the number of pages printed by Reduced failure. These cases have been extensively investigated and relatively clear-cut, but apart from that, the burden of proof is more anecdotal than scientific sources. Planned obsolescence is instead presented primarily as an everyday experience. The articles often begin with a sentence like "As each of us has experienced before, the electric toothbrush / printer / mixer ... dies shortly after the warranty expires." This makes all readers potential victims of malice who can vent their anger directly, because many articles end with a reference to websites where »botch« can be reported.

The fact that the studies by the Federal Environment Agency or other institutes have so far not provided any clear or comprehensive evidence for a system of fraudulently planned obsolescence is reported in the media, but does not lead to a significant turn in the "perpetrator-victim narrative". This form of presentation can be a possible explanation for the fact that consumers show somewhat paradoxical response behavior in surveys. Our current survey shows that 90 percent of those questioned believe that some manufacturers intentionally build their devices in such a way that they break shortly after the end of the two-year warranty period. Far more than half also believe that it doesn't matter how much they spend on electrical appliances, since everything stops working prematurely anyway. However, when consumers are asked whether a device broke prematurely, over 60 percent say no. And if the question is asked what reasons are suspected of breaking, it is most often stated for all devices mentioned - except smartphones and notebooks - that they have reached the end of their service life due to expected signs of wear and tear.

That means: Almost everyone believes there is planned obsolescence, so many distrust the manufacturers, but the majority have not yet experienced it themselves. Assuming that there are at least 50 electronic devices in every household, but that they seem to work most of the time, then planned obsolescence, contrary to what is represented in the media, is far from being an everyday experience. However, not all attributions of responsibility point towards the manufacturer: 94 percent of the consumers surveyed think they live in a throwaway society. Over 80 percent think it is terrible that many of their fellow citizens buy new electrical appliances when their old ones still work, and just as many believe that advertising also ensures that people always want something new.

Overall, there seems to be a more culturally pessimistic perception of modern society. These perceptions and attitudes can also have an impact on one's own consumption: the sooner, for example, one believes in the malice of manufacturers, the shorter the expected lifespan and the lower the willingness to repair a device. However, some consumers - around a fifth of our respondents on average - do not find short lifetimes to be a problem at all: They are, so to speak, »obsolescence accomplices« because a broken device is a welcome opportunity for them to buy a new one. They associate quality of life with new devices and like to show themselves to them in their social environment. The belief in planned obsolescence as a moral license for increased consumption?

Even if the survey - similar to other studies - provides indications that the obsolescence debate can also backfire, it shows much more clearly other causes for disposable consumption, which are also starting points for change. Because the higher one's own knowledge of products, their manufacture and functioning as well as their repairability, the more likely a product will be repaired, the higher the expectation of the service life and the longer the products will be used.

A lack of or incorrect knowledge of proper care and maintenance can affect the lifespan of devices. Only around half of those surveyed actively do something to ensure that smartphones and washing machines last longer with special care, maintenance or careful handling. And what they do is not always right: One third of those surveyed believe, for example, that the battery of their smartphone will last longer if they always fully charge and discharge it, which tends to put a strain on the battery in the long term and impair its performance.

However, there also seems to be significant potential for sustainable product use, because there is very high interest in practical information and options for self-repair (68 percent), repair services (74 percent) or the correct care and maintenance (83 percent) of devices . However, this information must be linked to corresponding low-threshold opportunities and offers - be it repair cafés in the area, do-it-yourself videos on the Internet or user-friendly maintenance options.

It is therefore important to look at the phenomenon of the short life of electronic devices from two sides: On the one hand, as part of a social discourse about the value of devices, about the expectations of their useful life and lifespan, and about the responsibility of manufacturers and consumers for the "life of things". And on the other hand, as part of everyday practices in dealing with products, which can lack knowledge and practical skills for sustainable consumption, as well as structural possibilities and offers.

The search for the causes of short-lived electronic products and fast-moving consumption should therefore not be a detective work that operates with clear perpetrator-victim categories. It should rather be a form of archeology, as practiced by our fictional descendants at the beginning of this text: uncovering the structure and layers of our material culture and asking the open question why the short-lived nature of consumer products makes sense, practical or simply the for various social actors easiest way can be.

Various areas of society - such as production, trade, consumption, media - are involved in the development of product obsolescence; they interact and interact. Only when this system is understood is it possible to answer the question of responsibility for the useful life and lifespan of consumer products in such a way that not one party is pilloried in the end. The goal should rather be an "architecture of responsibility" that realistically and future-oriented assesses the possibilities and potentials of assuming responsibility for all those involved.

This article appeared in the eighth issue of KATAPULT. Support our work and subscribe to the printed magazine for only 19.90 euros a year.