Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Why a computer only lasts three years

I recently read The Chairs are Where the People Go, which is a fun collection of essays by Misha Glouberman, with Sheila Heti. The book is just a low-key collection of Misha's idosyncratic observations on people and cities and society. This short essay stood out for me as presenting a small, but important point we often overlook:
Why a computer only lasts three years 

People complain about how in our modern world things aren't built to last. So when you buy a phone, for instance, it breaks after two or three years and you have to buy another one, and the same with a computer, whereas it used to be that you could buy a typewriter or a telephone and it lasted for decades.

I see this as a pretty benign consequence of progress. The typewriter that lasted for fifty years wasn't built in a world where the machines we type on become a hundred times more powerful every three years. Would it really be so awesome if the DOS-based 8086 IBM PC that you bought in 1983 still functioned today? Presumably it would have cost twice as much to make that machine last that long. Now, for less than a week's salary for the average person, you can buy a machine that can access all the information in the world while copying a movie and storing more text than is contained in a floor of a university library. So you can buy this machine that does all these incredible things, knowing that in three years a machine will come along that does all those things and more, even more incredibly.

This built-in obsolescence doesn't come out of malevolence. It comes out of the breakneck speed of progress. We get so insanely much for our money. These machines are such incredibly great deals. And the return on the money accelerates so fast. There's no sense in the manufacturer spending extra money to make this year's machine durable enough to compete with the machines that will be around in three years. 
Reprinted with permission.


metrohippie said...

OK, valid point here... yes of course tech is evolving rapidly... but it completely lacks any acknowledgement of energy or environmental impacts of manufacturing, distribution, and disposal of all this proclaimed necessary 'new stuff'. Saying, 'meh, it's all in the name of progress' is dated thinking... and it's lazy.

If we're to consciously design for obsolescence, how about mandatory corporate take back programs? Or better regulation on designing for disassembly and ease for recyclability?

metrohippie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jesse Richards said...

Recyclability / environmental sustainability of products become a priority once demanded by consumers. If they become a priority for consumers, people will seek out that factor when shopping and use that as a deciding point.

This has been a slow process that has already succeeded with many products (think about printer paper, for example, or any paper products - % recycled content is a major selling point), although you definitely have a point that it hasn't necessarily hit the computer industry yet. It will.

On a related note, the transition of much media and software to the cloud or online services is a huge environmental boon ... think of all the fewer music cds and software floppy disks no longer produced today.