A World of Planned Obsolescence?

The day started out like any other day. I went to bed early the night before, so I was feeling pretty great. The sun was shining as I walked to the train station ready to take on the day. The train has been really erratic lately thanks to the MUNI “sickout” and the general dysfunction in the system, but as I approached the stop, I could see a train pulling up to meet me. I step on the train and find myself welcomed by an empty seat. This must be my day... or so I thought.

I settle into my seat, pull out my book, and plug in my headphones. I make it to the next stop without being accosted by the guy who likes to march up and down the train fighting imaginary dragons. That’s when I heard it. It was slow at first, a slight inflection of the sound invading my left ear.

“My iPod must be dying,” I thought. I’ve had it for 7 years. It has some issues. So I check to make sure. Nope. Full battery. I try positioning it a few different ways in my pocket, just to make sure. No luck. As the realization set in my heart sank. My headphones are broken. Again. This means I now have to spend the whole day listening to those other Modern Industry assholes. How am I going to get anything done?(Full Disclosure: I(Patrick) am the Industrialist who does the most distracting in the bag cave.)

The day was tough, but I made it through. The knowledge that I had a spare set of headphones in my desk at home provided a sense of comfort.

Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

I wake up on day two, walk to the train. Sunny again, nice. I rush onto the crowded train car and select Elway’s Leavetaking on my iPod. No sound in my left ear. Again. What the hell. I checked these headphones last night. What is going on. I checked the iPod with 3 different pairs of headphones. It’s not the problem. Headphone failure has ruined my day again.

Maybe I’m being a little melodramatic here. Maybe not.

We live in a disposable culture. Our landfills are overflowing with objects that still function perfectly well. These objects sit next to products that died far too early. Designed to fail and be replaced. Unfortunately, most of these objects are not designed to degrade quickly, to be absorbed back into the earth. No, these are objects made out of materials that last forever and not in a good way. They can not be reused, reduced, or recycled. They are objects that fill an important role, they just die before their job is complete.  

It seems to me like headphones... or more specifically earphones fall directly into this category. I’m not suggesting earphones are designed to fail. I spent a few months working for SOL Republic, a great headphone brand right here in San Francisco. Never once did I hear a mention of planned obsolescence. Never was it suggested that the company expects customers to buy a new pair of earphones every few months because his last pair will inevitably or intentionally break. It may be happening, but I didn’t hear it.

The team at SOL Republic loves music and loves their community. I can’t imagine that they would want to build something that fails. They actually like to show off the strength of the headbands on their over ear products. They can be twisted into pretzel like configurations without breaking. It’s pretty impressive, but I always cringe at the sight.

No, this isn’t a SOL Republic problem. Nor is it Beats by Dre problem. A Sony problem. A Skullcandy problem. A Bose problem. I’ve tried most of those brands. This is an earphone problem. They all break and they break far too quickly in normal use. It is kind of ridiculous that I can’t find a pair of headphones that last more than a year.

I understand why these headphones are breaking. The connection between the cable and the input jack is failing. Is it possible to make this connection robust enough to last a year during normal, everyday use? I don’t know. Maybe it’s not. If it is technically possible, we... as a culture... should demand better solutions. If I was guaranteed that a $150 pair of headphones would last 5 years, then I would gladly buy them over the $39 headphones I typically buy. But I’ve tried more expensive headphones. They seem to break just as quickly, if not more so. I once bought a pair of $110 headphones that broke after 5 weeks. I tried to return them, but by the time the company in question got back to be it had been over 90 days and they would not honor their return policy. That was great customer service experience. 

This is the crux of our Buy Less, Buy Better motto. We live in a world that already has too much shit. As a creator is my job to make sure that anything we put into the world is needed and will last as long as possible. And when you’re done with the product, it should disappear, gracefully. Advertisers have spent years convincing us that we all need the newest, shiniest thing. That we should flip our wardrobes every six months. That we need a new car every three years. When that doesn’t work, companies just make products that simply don’t last long enough. Using a material that will stick around for 1000 years to make something that only lasts four months is unacceptable.

Buy things that do less harm to create. Buy things that do less harm when you’re done with them. Buy things that are built to last. If anyone know of a pair of earbuds that fit the bill, let me know.  

June 23, 2014 by Patrick Healy
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