Planned Obsolescence: A Lament for Quality Amid a World of Junk
Our family recently camped for a week in a nearby state forest where our most trusted item was a cast-iron frying pan. Its thickness distributes heat evenly. Nothing can harm it. The wrong kind of spatula won’t scratch some special non-stick coating.With simple care, it will last for a thousand years. Which reminded me how rare that combination of high quality and durability is today.
Most everything else I own is junk and seems to be designed that way. Here are several anecdotal examples:
In the old days, most Americans rented phones from the phone company (“Ma Bell”). My parents still own one, now over 30 years old, that survived raising three boys. These phones lasted forever. Meanwhile, Ma Bell was broken up in the 1980s. One engineer who worked for the phone company before and after the breakup told me of how the engineers were gathered together and given new ground rules: “It was all well and good in the old days to make phones with gold-plated contacts. But now it’s different. Here’s how to make the newer phones…” I think back on this comment as I watch one phone after another die, often after a few months.
I once helped my uncle select a new laser printer for his small business. The printer was a Laserjet 5 made by Hewlett-Packard. That was 15 years ago; the printer still works beautifully. It is made of metal and feels robust. In contrast, current printers, whether from HP or anyone else, feel like plastic junk. Whenever I open a compartment on my current printer, I worry that I will snap off a piece of the case and break it beyond repair.
My less anecdotal example is textbooks. A standard introductory college physics textbook is Young and Freedman’s University Physics. Why is it in its 12th edition? In the 55 years since it was first published, has introductory college physics changed so significantly and so frequently? Hardly. Almost every idea taught in introductory physics has remained unchanged since the 1930s when quantum mechanics was developed. Indeed, the masterwork in this genre, Feynman’s famous Lectures on Physics was published in 1964 and is still mostly in its original form (there are two newer editions incorporating corrections provided by readers worldwide).
The reason for the 12 editions of Young and Freedman’s University Physics, as for most textbooks today, is planned obsolescence. Textbook publication contracts usually have a clause roughly along the following lines:
You agree to revise the book upon written request from us (the publisher). If you do not agree, we may select an author and pay them from your royalties. The payment will not exceed 25 percent of the royalties for the first revision, 50 percent for the second revision, and 75 for the third revision (and all the royalties for fourth and subsequent revisions).
The original author may be unwilling to do a revision, either because he or she has died or otherwise has no time. The publisher invites another author to make the revision, and voila, a new edition with a longer author list is created.
Best of all, the new edition is not available on the used-book market! Therein lies the publisher’s reason for the new edition: to force students to buy a new book rather than to “recycle” by buying a used copy. Often the newer edition will be nearly identical to the previous edition, except for reordering and renumbering the end-of-chapter problems. Therefore, homework assignments with lists of problems based on one edition cannot be used for a different edition. Conscientious professors will provide multiple problem numbers based on edition. However, after a few editions even the most conscientious will give up tracking the changes and simply require students to buy the current edition.
This deliberate generation of waste might have amazed and shocked our scholarly colleagues from medieval times. In medieval England, a book cost about $10,000 (in 2011 dollars) [H. E. Bell, The Price of Books in Medieval England, Library s4-XVII (3):312-332 (1936)]. This cost makes sense: Copying a book by hand might take a skilled workman about half a year. That one day books would be so cheap and publishers’ profit so important that people would design books to be thrown out—this would simply have been incomprehensible.