• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Planned Obsolescence

Reflections on replacing a computer.

October 2, 2014

When I made myself a “reverse bucket list” promise to survive my struggle with a brain tumor because I wanted to live to get married and have children, I doubt I even knew what a “book rep” was. I had only taught a few days, and I had not yet met any. Still, over almost four years later, that is exactly who I married. A kind, good man came to sell me books, and ended up, as he (now a lawyer) likes to joke, with a “life sentence.” I remember learning much about the textbook publishing industry in those days, and was surprised that he was honestly mystified as to why professors did not want to switch books every semester to try out new ones that were promised to be better than the ones currently used. To complicate things, he was expected to sell new editions that were usually only marginally different from old ones, making the current texts obsolete. This idea of planned obsolescence is one that I found myself thinking of lately as I replaced a laptop computer that I had hoped would last longer than it did.

When I bought a laptop computer a few years ago, I wanted something small that was easily portable. After much research, I found one that, with the addition of a wireless mouse, was a good substitute for my desktop computers. I found myself mostly using it for writing when away from home and work, and for Skyping with my parents several states away. It worked well, until a few weeks ago, when it became especially important that I be able to reach my parents by Skype every day. Of course, if you really need something, that is when it is going to break.

When I bought the computer a few years ago, I bought a demonstration model that had been left out for consumers to try. There was a good deal on it, and I was happy with the price they were asking. Once I decided to buy the demonstration model, I realized that I should probably buy an extended warranty on it, too. After all, this was a product that had been tried by many people. Even with the warranty added in, the price was good, and I was happy with the purchase.

When the computer failed me, I called the people who held the extended warranty. They assured me that they could help. Unfortunately, when I told them I wanted the computer fixed, they told me that they would not fix it, but only replace it. I wanted a computer back, so I did not argue. I was struck by the fact that they made no effort to fix the product, and that they just assumed that the product should be thrown away.

I began to wonder about this. Why do we build products that are not designed to last even two years, and why is it easier to replace rather than repair a product? Couldn’t we develop a way that additional memory and/or programs could be added to an old computer, so it did not have to be discarded?  I understand what the person in the store told me, that the old product is now obsolete and not worth repairing. However, this approach to technology seems particularly wasteful. I don’t want to leave my daughter with a world filled with abandoned technological garbage. Can’t we find a way to offer electronic goods that can actually be repaired? Does anyone know why this is not the case?


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