Planned obsolescence strikes again

On Tuesday I joined the queue of people at the local computer shop, all clutching laptops, smart phones or PC peripherals suffering from planned obsolescence syndrome. Some of these items may still have been under warranty (joy). But in the case of my four-year-old Toshiba laptop, the optical drive, the fragile looking tray that slides out to take CDs or DVDs, had carked it.

It failed just as I finished burning a 58 minute video of our choir Tapestry’s Christmas performance. “Do you want to burn another?’ the video editing programme asked. “Yes” I clicked and the optical drive then made a noise like the dentist burnishing my teeth with plaque-stripping paste.

The young chap behind the counter (they’re all young), spent some time testing then pronounced it dead. “We have plug and play drives for about $50,” he said. “But we haven’t any in stock at the moment.”

Ah, so this is a frequent event in computer repairs and replacement land. A google search of ‘CD DVD drive failed’ brought a consensus that an optical drive in a laptop will rarely last five years.

A recent article in Lifewire explained why so many desktop computers and laptops sold today do not have CD or DVD drives installed. They are being dropped to save space and also because portable flash drives and hard drives have more capacity, perform faster and are definitely cheaper than sourcing a replacement optical drive (which includes an hour of labour to remove the old and install the new).

A while ago, I gave a copy of our latest CD to someone who has been helping me retrieve my sense of perspective. Last time I saw him he confessed not to have listened to it yet, the problem being he had nothing on which to listen to a CD except his (work) laptop which, I suspect, is never used for anything other than work. CD players are becoming obsolete. If you still have one and it has started to misbehave, it probably won’t be worth repairing. Most late model cars don’t have CD players, preferring USB, WiFi and Bluetooth to extract music from the ether.

Like so many Millenials in Australia, most of my younger relatives in New Zealand have Bluetooth speakers,which play (compressed) music streamed from their phones or tablets.

“I couldn’t find you on Spotify, Uncle,” said one.

Let’s examine the logic here. The average lifespan of a laptop computer ($400 to $1,800) is three to five years. Bluetooth speakers ($40 to $1,000) have not been around long enough for lifespans to be established,but there’s an amusing exchange on about this very subject “until it stops working”, one wag offers. Two years seems to be the current guess, and that is largely based on the lifespan of the battery (some of which are replaceable, and some not). And don’t even start me on mobile phones (I’m on my third one in four years).

 The trick might be to buy top quality gear in the first place. One of the five components in my Technics stereo (a top line model, circa 1985 – before planned obsolescence became widespread), is showing signs of failure. The CD changer plays OK but then inexplicably stops, or skips to another track or to the middle of another track. In the office downstairs I usually play music through computer speakers from my iTunes library.  ITunes and streaming services compress music, the downside being an unavoidable degradation of audio quality. The advantage for musicians in compressing a 24MB audio file to a 2MB MP3 that can be emailed is obvious. I once emailed a demo to London at 10pm our time, to a songwriter friend who listened to it over morning coffee and sent immediate feedback.

The convenience and the speed with which music can be recorded and disseminated (and listened to on a virtual jukebox), outweighs the loss of sonic integrity.

Or you can reject planned obsolescence and go retro. One of my relatives has a quality audio system which is set up to play vinyl. There was just something so real about the velvety voice of Marlon Williams coming out of those speakers that made a mockery of my MP3 version of the same album.

Aotearoa has had a long love affair with vinyl records. EMI produced the first one from its Wellington factory in 1955 (the WinifredAtwell selection). The last vinyl record production unit closed in 1987 and EMI shipped the hardware to Australia. Many Kiwi (and Australian) artists still produce vinyl versions of their music for those who have fallen in love with or rediscovered the quality of analogue sound. A few pressing plants keep the faith, including Peter King’s King Worldwide in Ashburton (NZ) and Zenith Records in Melbourne.

As Ted Goslin writes, when explaining why vinyl is making a comeback (14m copies sold in the US alone last year); it’s become cool. Half of those buying vinyl are millennials, although 27% are over 35, buying new albums or raiding their baby boomer parents’ LP collections. 

But as we established, the immediacy of digital music is its strength. Someone once emailed me the words to an amusing parody of Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, “I burnt the toast on both sides now” is funny and somehow sacrilegious, the perfect foil to slide into a broader discussion about planned obsolescence.

A friend had a toaster given to her in 1971 which had spring-loaded ‘gates’ on both sides. Although she has since bought a four-slice, pop-up toaster, the old one still works and is brought out sometimes to remind us of the days when a lot of kitchen work was not automated. Some even washed dishes by hand.

According to a blog in The Spruce, a toaster should last six to eight years. When you think about it, there’s not much to a toaster and it only has to do one job. Choice Magazine said just this when handing out one of its Shonky Awards to the (RRP $189) KitchenAid2 two-slice toaster, to which Choice gave a score of 0. The testers even took it back and got a replacement with the same poor result. Choice branded it a ‘pricey paperweight’.

We’re familiar with consumer goods which don’t come up to scratch and it’s not always a case of getting what you paid for. At FOMM HQ we’re on our third microwave in five years and this one appears to be rusting on the bottom. The Spruce blog reckons a microwave will see out nine years, a slow cooker and a coffee machine six to 10 years and a vacuum cleaner eight years. Writer Lauren Abrams say much depends on the quality of the appliance, how often you use it and how well you look after it.

The toaster in our caravan, now in its third year, gets a wipe over every three months or so and, like the house toaster, the crumb tray gets emptied at least once a year! It was an impulse buy ($7 from a Goondiwindi discount department store). It works just fine so long as I adjust the timer (if She Who Toasts Gluten-Free Bread has been there first).

In the words of Canberra parodist Chris Clarke:

I’ve burnt the toast on both sides now,
Both front and back – to charcoal black,
The toasting time I don’t recall,
I really can’t make toast, after all.

More reading:

The Waste Makers: Vance Packard (1960)

Made to Break: Giles Slade (2007)

Fixing your PC with a hairdryer


  1. Brilliant. Everything I wanted to say but couldn’t. Quite a seductive style.

  2. Up here on the Sunshine Coast we now have a company who fixes yes, fixes stereos, cd players, electronic gadgets, electronic pianos etc.They are advertising to fix not discard!! Brocky’s.

  3. Yes Dianne, a couple of readers alerted me to this. Thanks.

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