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Updated: June 12, 2011 18:52 IST

Obsolescence built into our minds

D. Murali
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The law of life cycles is one of big forces behind hyper-consumption, write Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers in ‘What’s Mine Is Yours: How collaborative consumption is changing the way we live’ (

A section devoted to the above law opens by stating that mobile phones have now achieved the dubious status of having the shortest life cycle of any electronic consumer product. The authors inform that the average person in the US and the UK discards his or her mobile phone within 18 months of purchase, even though mobile phones will last for ten years on average; and that in Japan the time span from purchase to discard is merely a year. It can be startling to know that every year more than 130 million still-working mobile phones in the US and 15 million in the UK are retired, but it is only a small fraction that gets reassembled for reuse.

The iPod, in the authors’ view, is not far behind the mobile phone in claiming ‘the shortest life cycle’ crown. “For a product introduced in 2001, it is remarkable that by 2009 it had already gone through six ‘generations’ of the first ‘Classic’ model (and that does not even include the extensions of the family such as the Shuffle, Nano, Mini and Touch). If you were one of those consumers who ‘upgraded’ to every new iPod that had come onto the market from 2001 to 2009, you would now own eighteen iPods.”

We are addicted to new products, say Botsman and Rogers. They cite Colin Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of York, for the diagnosis – that we suffer from ‘neophilia,’ where novelty seeking is the new phenomenon. “Pre-modern societies tend to be suspicious of the novel. It is a feature of modernity that we are addicted to novelty.”

As a stark example of how obsolescence was built into our minds, the book traces the tale of how GM’s Alfred Sloan launched Chevrolet by convincing his team ‘to restyle the body covering of what was essentially a nine-year-old piece of technology under the banner of product innovation.’ The Chevrolet was a remarkable success and the idea of ‘perceived obsolescence’ and ‘change for change’s sake’ was born, the authors note.

“GM went so far as to define its strategy as choreographed cosmetic ‘upgrades’ to ‘Keep the Consumer Dissatisfied.’ In 1929, Charles Kettering, director of research for Sloan, wrote an article declaring, ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction…’”

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