Planned obsolescence: conspiracy fact, not conspiracy theory

Full transcription below

One of my very earliest wibblettes, back in 2007, was a simple rant about the very topic that ‘Veritasium’ expounds here. I’ve touched on the subject several times since (for instance in 2011, when I asked the question “Hey, clever people, can you design to last?“; I’m still waiting on an answer to that that isn’t “No, because we have to ‘design for the dump’ or civilization will collapse”… /eyeroll).

We really do, desperately, need to get off this ‘stuff’ treadmill. But before we can even think about doing that, we need to open our eyes to the fact that it exists. Veritasium sheds some light on the matter:

Veritasium: This is a video about things, like cars, phones and lightbulbs; and an actual conspiracy that made them worse. This video was sponsored by NordVPN; more about them at the end of the video. I am outside Livermore Fire Station #6; and in here, they have the longest continuously-on lightbulb in the world. It has been on for 120 years, since 1901. It’s not even connected to a light switch — but it does have a back-up battery and generator. So, the big question is: how has this lightbulb lasted so long? It was manufactured by hand not long after commercial lightbulbs were first invented, and yet it has been running for over a million hours; way longer than any lightbulb today is meant to last.

A while back, a friend of mine told me this story: that someone had invented a lightbulb that would last forever — years ago; but they never sold it because an everlasting lightbulb makes for a terrible business model. I mean, you would never have any repeat customers and eventually you would run out of people to sell lightbulbs to. I thought this story sounded ridiculous. If you could make an everlasting lightbulb, then everyone would buy your lightbulb over the competitors’: and so you could charge really high prices, make a lot of money — even if demand would eventually dry up. I just couldn’t imagine that we had better lightbulbs in the past, and then intentionally made them worse. But it turns out I was wrong. At least, sort of.

Inventing a viable electric light was hard. I mean, this is the typical incandescent design, which just involves passing electric current through a material, making it so hot that it glows. You know, less than 5% of the electrical energy comes out as light; the other 95% is released as heat. So, these are really ‘heat bulbs’ which give off a little bit of light as a by-product. You know, the temperature of the filament can get up to 2800 Kelvin. That is half as hot as the surface of the sun. At temperatures like those, most materials melt; and if they don’t melt, they burn. Which is why in the 1840s, Warren De la Rue came up with the idea of putting the filament in a vacuum bulb so there’s no oxygen to react with. By 1879, Thomas Edison had made a bulb with a cotton thread filament that lasted 14 hours. Other inventors created bulbs with platinum filaments or other carbonized materials; and, gradually, the lifespan of bulbs increased. The filaments changed from carbon to tungsten, which has a very high melting point; and by the early 1920s, average bulb lifetimes were approaching 2000 hours, with some lasting 2500 hours. But this is when lifetimes stopped getting longer, and started getting shorter.

In Geneva, Switzerland, just before Christmas 1924, there was a secret meeting of top executives from the world’s leading lightbulb companies: Philips, International General Electric, Tokyo Electric, Osram from Germany and the UK’s Associated Electric, among others. They formed what became known as the Phoebus cartel, named after Phoebus, the Greek god of light. There, all these companies agreed to work together to help each other: by controlling the world’s supply of lightbulbs. In the early days of the electrical industry, there had been lots of different small lightbulb manufacturers; but, by now, they had largely been consolidated into these big corporations, each dominant in a particular part of the world. The biggest threat they all faced was from longer lasting lightbulbs. For example, in 1923, Osram sold 63 million lightbulbs: but the following year they sold only 28 million. Lightbulbs were lasting too long, eating into sales. So, all the companies in the cartel agreed to reduce the lifespan of their bulbs to 1000 hours, cutting the existing average almost in half.

But how could each company ensure that the other companies would actually follow the rules and make shorter lasting lightbulbs? After all, it would be in each of their individual interests to make a better product to out-sell the others. Well, to enforce the thousand-hour limit, each of the manufacturers had to send in sample bulbs from their factories, and they were tested on big test stands like this one. If a bulb lasted significantly longer than a thousand hours, then the company was fined. If a bulb lasted longer than three thousand hours? Well, the fine was 200 Swiss Francs for every thousand bulbs sold; and there are records of these fines being issued to companies. But, how do you make a worse lightbulb in the first place? Well, the same engineers who had previously been tasked with extending the lifespan now had to find ways to decrease it. So they tried different materials, different shaped filaments and thinner connections: and if you look at the data, they were successful. Ever since the formation of the cartel, the lifespan of lightbulbs steadily decreased so that by 1934 the average lifespan was just 1205 hours. And just as they had planned, sales increased for cartel members by 25% in the four years after 1926. And even though the cost of components came down, the cartel kept prices virtually unchanged, so they increased their profit margins.

So, did people know that the lightbulb companies were conspiring together to make their products worse? No. The Phoebus cartel claimed that its purpose was to increase standardization and efficiency of lightbulbs; I mean, they did establish this screw thread as standard: you can find it on virtually all lightbulbs around the world now. But all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for consumers.

So, one of the reasons this lightbulb has lasted so long is because it was made before the cartel era. Another reason is because the filament has always been run at low power, just four or five Watts. It was meant to be a night light for the fire station, to provide just enough light so that firemen wouldn’t run into things at night. And the fact that it was always on reduced the thermal cycling of the filament and components, limiting the stress caused by thermal expansion and contraction. The Phoebus cartel was initially planned to last at least until 1955, but it fell apart in the 1930s. It was already struggling due to outside competition and non-compliance amongst some of its members, but the outbreak of World War Two is really what finished it off. So, this cartel was dead; but its methods survive to this day. There are lots of companies out there that intentionally shorten the lifespan of their products. It’s a tactic known now as ‘planned obsolescence’.

This was actually the subject of Casey Neistat’s first viral video, all the way back in 2003:

Ryan: Thank you for calling Apple; my name name’s Ryan, may I have your first name, please?

Casey: Casey.

Ryan: All right, what seems to be the issue today?

Casey: I have an iPod that I bought about 18 months ago, and the battery is dead on it?

Ryan: Mmhm? 18 months? OK, it’s passed its year, which basically means, there’ll be a charge of $255, plus a mailing fee to send it to us to refurb it, to correct it. But at that price, you know, you might as well go get a new one.

Veritasium: This video got millions of views in a time before YouTube or social media, and it spawned a class action lawsuit which Apple settled out of court. But it didn’t stop the company from practising planned obsolescence. After an iOS update in 2017, users of older iPhones found apps loading significantly slower, or the device shutting down altogether. Apple said they’d throttled performance to protect the battery of older devices and increase their longevity. Of course, that wouldn’t be an issue if the battery were replaceable. In a series of lawsuits that concluded in 2020, Apple was fined, or reached settlements to pay, hundreds of millions of dollars. Undoubtedly, this amount pales in comparison to the extra revenue they generate by limiting the lifespan of their products.

But some would argue that planned obsolescence isn’t just about greed, but that it’s also good for everyone. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, when as much as a quarter of Americans were out of work, an American real estate broker, Bernard London, proposed mandatory planned obsolescence as a way to get people back to work and lift America out of the Depression. He wrote, “I would have the government assign a lease of life to shoes, and homes, and machines when they are first created, and they would be sold and used within the term of their existence, definitely known by the consumer”. After the allotted time had expired, these things would be legally ‘dead’, and would be controlled by the duly appointed governmental agency and destroyed if there is widespread unemployment. Now, this might sound like a wild fringe idea; but people were clearly afraid of being put out of work by technological progress and products that were too good.

There was even a popular Oscar-nominated film about it. This is ‘The Man in the White Suit‘, from 1951. It’s about a scientist who invents the perfect fibre; it won’t stain, or break, or fray….

Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness): I think I’ve succeeded in the co-polymerisation of amino acid residues and carbohydrate molecules; both containing ionic groups. It’s really perfectly simple.

Veritasium: The Academy Award nomination was for best screenplay: I kid you not. Anyway, everyone is initially excited about our hero’s scientific discovery: he makes a suit out of the thread, and it has to be white because the fibre is so stain-resistant it can’t even be dyed. But this is when trouble strikes: the factory owners realize they won’t be able to sell as much of this thread because it’s so durable; and the workers worry it’ll put them out of a job.

Ignorant old washerwoman: Why can’t you scientists leave things alone? What about my bit of washing when there’s no washing to do?

Veritasium: This is when you get the climactic scene where factory workers and factory owners team up to chase down the scientist to destroy him and his invention. And believe it or not, this movie may have been inspired by real events. In the 1940s, the synthetic fibre nylon replaced silk in stockings, and it was so durable that the products became an overnight sensation. There were literal riots when women tried to get their hands on them. When the manufacturers realized they had made the product too good, they didn’t destroy the fibre; but they did follow the example of the Phoebus cartel: they instructed their engineers and scientists to find ways to weaken the product; to shorten its lifespan so people would have to buy more.

Now, it seems like consumers are finally fighting back against planned obsolescence. In the European Union, and in over 25 states in the US, there’s proposed legislation to enshrine the ‘right to repair’. These laws would force manufacturers to make it easier to repair their products. They would have to provide information and access to parts so you could replace a battery or fix a cracked screen at a third party repair shop without voiding your warranty. So, if the right to repair does become law, does that mean artificial obsolescence will be gone for good? Sadly, no, because there is one last thing manufacturers can use to make their products obsolete, which is you.

Henry Ford released the first mass market car, the Model T, in 1908, and he envisioned it like a workhorse, an affordable tool that wouldn’t wear out; a bit like the everlasting lightbulb. In 1922, Ford said, “We want the man who buys one of our cars never to have to buy another. We never make an improvement that renders any previous model obsolete”. But by 1920, 55% of American families already owned a car. Nearly everyone that could afford one, had one. And that same year, there was a small economic downturn, driving down sales for both Ford and General Motors. In 1921, Dupont, the chemical and paint company, took over the controlling share in General Motors, and they started experimenting with painting cars different colours. Up until then, Henry Ford had said, “you could have whatever colour you like — so long as it’s black”. It took a couple of years of testing, but in 1924, GM released their first cars in different colours, and soon after they introduced a trick that feels very familiar now. Each new year, they would introduce cars in different colours.

The goal wasn’t just to make Ford’s Model T look outdated, but to make their own cars feel outdated every year; encouraging customers to trade in their old cars for shiny new ones. Years later, GM’s head of design, Harley Earl, candidly discussed his role in creating what he called ‘dynamic obsolescence’: “Our big job is to hasten obsolescence. In 1934 the average car ownership span was five years now (which was 1955) it is two years. When it is one year we will have a perfect score.” By the time he said this, General Motors was the most valuable company in the world, and it sold half of all vehicles purchased in the US every year. These days, the world’s most valuable company, Apple, seems to have copied directly out of this play-book. I mean, new styles every year? Check. New special colours every year? Check. Marginal technological improvement? Check. I mean, is this useful innovation, or just a gimmick?

The inspiration for General Motors, and hence for Apple, comes from fashion; where real innovation is all but impossible. So, the only way to make people feel the urgency to get out there and buy is to create styles that last but one season. The trouble then is, you run through these styles too quickly — and then what are you supposed to do? Well, just recycle the styles from a few decades ago. The iPhone also shows this recycling trend. I mean, just look at the way the edges were initially rounded; and then they were squared off; and then they were rounded again; and now they’re squared off. And how much do you want to bet that the iPhone 14 has rounded edges? I think the point is that with design and styling, there is no ‘best,’ there’s only ‘different,’ which is apparently enough to remind us that we don’t have the latest and greatest, and so we have to rush out and keep buying.

The only type of obsolescence we should support is technological. Which brings us back to the lightbulb. You know, in the last 20 years, lightbulbs have gone from incandescent, which was basically unchanged for a hundred years, to compact fluorescent; and now to LED. These use just a tenth the energy and can last anywhere from 10 to 50 times longer. Yeah, that’s pretty bright. So, you’re more likely to sell your house than to have to replace an LED bulb that you’ve installed inside it. So, we’ve finally reached the point of what is essentially an everlasting lightbulb.

[NordVPN advert snipped] So, I want to thank NordVPN for sponsoring Veritasium, and I want to thank you for watching.

Veritasium

… and I want to thank Sonix for making it possible to transcribe this video without it taking me a dozen hours or more!


PS I’ve been reminded, by some visitors who have searched Wibble for the keyword ‘conspiracy’, that I posted a short article last year entitled ‘The Conspiracy Theory Handbook‘: If you’ve got this far and are interested in the topic, you may want to take a look at that. I think you may find it interesting.


Header image adapted from
people sitting on white concrete stairs‘ (?)
by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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20 Responses to Planned obsolescence: conspiracy fact, not conspiracy theory

  1. leavergirl says:

    Totally.
    And I have a feeling that even the conspiring bastards at the light bulb trust would have agreed that it’s not good for the general well being. They would say they have to turn a profit and compete successfully. So what’s the way out of this dilemma? Surely not a diktat from the green politburo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      ‘The way out of this dilemma’, to my mind, is, as with many things, to recognise that there is a problem and to act to do something about it. Which is, I admit, immensely difficult in a society that uses many ‘smoke and mirrors’ techniques to persuade everyone that “there’s nothing to see here, move along, move along…”. Homo fatuus brutus is insanely proud of its ability to believe that it can do no wrong, and that ‘progress’ is good.

      Like

  2. Herb says:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together even for merriment and diversion but the conversation ends at a conspiracy against the public.”
    – Adam Smith
    There is a movement here that is gaining steam called, “The Right to Repair.” Repairing stuff rather than throwing it away and replacing it is always smart on several different levels. I tried to repair my Epson printer (trying to make a long story short) and I was finally told (I am paraphrasing this part completely) that the printer had reached the end of its life. Period. They won’t give you a reset code even if you do fix it as “the quality of the print cannot be assured.” “It prints good enough for me and what I need.” “I’m sorry sir…blah, blah, blah.” That’s just one example.
    Planned obsolescence is definitely a thing and we as consumers need to send a stronger message to manufacturers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      Agreed, stronger messages are necessary. As individuals, though, we can have little impact, sadly. In your Epson case, about the best one can do is storm off in a huff, ranting loudly, “I refuse to buy another Epson product ever again!”.

      Having someone video the scene, posting it on social media and then sending Epson’s CEO a link to it is optional (although that last part, I believe, would be, mostly fruitless).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Herb says:

        You’d get a canned response, at best.

        Liked by 1 person

        • leavergirl says:

          Yup. None of the old ideas work anymore. The people in govt don’t work for us, and they are not hiding it. The corporations never worked for us. And now they have bought the govt, pretty much, and can get bailed out any time they want, why would they care about customer feedback?

          I just tried to get a call to the UPS store in town. One number goes on and on about shit, then tells you to call another number. When you call the other number, it gets you a sqealing fax. That’s how things work nowadays.

          Still, though…. how do you counter planned obsolescence in a system that profits from it? America tried anti-trust laws, but they haven’t been enforced since… I think Teddy Roosevelt. And are not likely to be now. I am not an economist, not good at thinking it through. I tried to find ideas with the georgists and the steady state people, but they all have their heads up their abstractions.

          Liked by 2 people

          • pendantry says:

            how do you counter planned obsolescence in a system that profits from it?

            The only answer I can think of is a simple one: people need to stop falling for marketing bullshit, and stop buying stuff they don’t need. (No doubt the economists would rail at that, accusing me of advocating ‘destroying the economy’… but WTF do they know? They treat their economic theories as fact, and refuse to acknowledge that their theories could be wrong. Which is totally unsurprising, as they are ‘experts’ in their field.)

            Like

          • Herb says:

            I don’t think anti-trust laws are going to be much help. What will help is people not giving in, which is a lot more difficult. There is not an easy answer and I don’t think governments will be much more help than lipservice, but we as consumers need to stop or at least slow our consuming which is easier said than done.

            Liked by 1 person

          • leavergirl says:

            Been thinking this is systemic. There is a line where competition turns into war. When cabals are formed to snow everybody else under. When debt is forced on people, whether in company towns or pushing debt on whole nations… and then punishing those who won’t take it… like Belarus currently. In the extreme cases, gangs start shooting people in turf wars.

            How can you tell you’ve crossed the line? If you have one or a very few companies on top, and nobody else has a chance. Like in nature, no diversity is deadly in economics.

            If you want better light bulbs rather than greater light bulb profits, you have to have fair competition. With umpires and penalties for players who cheat is part of it. There is another part I don’t get yet.

            Liked by 1 person

          • pendantry says:

            I’ve long believed that the adage ‘the love of money is the root of all evil‘ is spot on. It drives wealth inequality to the kind of tipping points you’re talking about. Some inequality is good, as it encourages us all to try harder, but the chasm between rich and poor that’s expanded in recent times is utterly ludicrous — and extremely dangerous.

            I look forward to hearing your thoughts on ‘the other part’… when you ‘get it’.

            Like

          • leavergirl says:

            Yep. The other part, I think, is the money flow (or “what you feed will grow”). I am thinking of it in terms of current incentives in health care. Basically, we have a system where it pays to keep people sick, not to cure them. It pays to turn illnesses into chronic ones, and cash in for the lifetime of a person. It pays to hide useful solutions to health problems as quackery. It pays to sell medicines that cause health problems while alleviating others. I think that a real solution to the obsolescence problem and the health care problem is the same. You incentivize true healing. You incentivize better light bulbs. Maybe an economist can tell us how best to do this, and earn some lunch money. :-)

            Liked by 1 person

          • pendantry says:

            I believe that the current crop of economists are part of the problem. They cannot be a part of the solution until they can learn to think outside the box of infinite growth.

            Like

    • That’s been happening to me for years and years now. “Just get a new one.” … Yes, I can afford a replacement but why would I do that if I can just repair what’s broken? The sad part is that the part is either no longer in production or is more expensive than the entirely new product, which puts people off. Insanity.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Cool video. As I watched, I would come up with comments that were later mentioned in the video. Yes, companies are greedy but people seem not to care much. An average Joe is totally fine, heck, even happy to replace his phone every year or two at max just because the new camera has a better resolution (most people will never really notice/ need the difference)…

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      You’re not wrong. It seems to me that the average person is eager to replace their widgetry unnecessarily because they’ve been brainwashed into believing that doing so will improve their lives far more than it actually does. And I’m sure they would care more if they weren’t kept ignorant of the true costs (by a seriously flawed economic paradigm that refuses to acknowledge that there are limits to growth).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. daryan12 says:

    As an engineer I have to point out that companies, in order to stop themselves getting sued, do need to make sure that a product is brought to the end of its service life in a safe way, before say it starts a fire and burns down your house. That said, I think they are taking some serious liberties with planned obsolescence.

    They’ve been burying kill code in consumer products for example (that mean it will simply stop working after a certain period of time) or software to prevent independent repair. In a lot of cases, the product could be simply refurbished, replace a few components and you are good to go. But they’ve been riveting or gluing the cover or chassis such that you have to break the damn thing to get inside (i.e. you have to basically break in order to fix it).

    As you mentioned, the EU has been trying to promote a right to repair (which is good news for some I suppose, but not much use if you don’t live in the EU), something I covered in one of my blog posts. Its not a bad idea….so long as you know what you are doing!
    https://daryanenergyblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/05/a-right-to-repair/

    Louis Rossmann is a good channel to check out, he’s a right to repair advocate who fixes up apple equipment, that apple have otherwise declared DOA.
    https://www.youtube.com/user/rossmanngroup

    Also a good video here about US farmers who have started to hack their tractors in order to be able to repair them and get around a ban on such repairs by the manufacturer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • pendantry says:

      […] companies, in order to stop themselves getting sued, do need to make sure that a product is brought to the end of its service life in a safe way […]

      Yes, well, hmm… there’s this adage: ‘the law is an ass’. The companies of which you speak only have to do the bare minimum to abide by a set of laws that don’t consider externalities. Take plastic bottle manufacturers, for instance: they don’t need to worry about getting sued for the fact that umpteen billions of waste bottles end up in the sea, because there’s (currently at least, though there ought to be) no law that says that they’re obliged to deal with the harm done by it. And that’s just a trivial example.

      Thanks for the links; I’ll follow them up.

      Like

      • daryan12 says:

        Tests to destruction of products (even innocent things like printers or TV’s) will sometimes resulted in just that – catastrophic failure…followed by a visit by the local fire brigade. I once had an old kettle blow up on me. And when I checked it later, I was able to get a circuit between the electrical circuit and the body of the kettle (so if I plugged it in to the mains it could have become potentially lethal). Also there are “users” and “abusers”. As in people will do crazy things with products sometimes. And we live in a world of Karen’s and Ken’s who will blame and sue others for their own stupidity.

        But like I said, I think many corporations take it way too far these days, often effectively sabotaging their own products on the grounds of liability avoidance, which just so happens to up their own sales.

        Like

  5. daryan12 says:

    Oh, another horror story. We were doing a longevity test on a the power train for a fuel cell electric vehicle. Sometime between tests, when we weren’t using the lab, someone let a bunch of art students into the lab, so they could use the space to prepare for an exhibition. I came in to find one of them had left a cup of coffee on top if the electric car battery with enough power in it to not only electrocute someone to death several times over, but barbecue them down to carbon. And yes there were several big red warning labels everywhere saying high voltage do not touch. Just as well we didn’t leave any hydrogen in the lab or they’ve have probably burnt down half the city.

    Liked by 1 person

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