Perceived Obsolescence

Every since watching The Story of Stuff the other night, I’ve had the concept of perceived obsolescence on the brain.

I keep seeing examples of it everywhere I look. I keep finding examples of it right in my own home.

Perceived obsolescence, along with planned obsolescence, is what keeps industry running.

We know what planned obsolescence is, right? Products designed to require regular replacement.

But perceived obsolescence?

Another word for ‘fashion’ that does a pretty good job of pointing out just how silly the human race can be.

When you turn in your cell phone every two years for a ‘free upgrade’, and the new phone makes you feel like your old phone was just a step up from those brick-sized things the very rich used in the 80s even though it still works like a charm, that’s perceived obsolescence.

When you can’t be seen in a pair of jeans with lots of wear left in them because the legs are too wide, too tight, or too flared? That’s perceived obsolescence.

In my own house, there is lots of talk about getting a flat screen TV. Our regular old TV, the kind with a picture tube, seems huge. Clunky. As out dated as a re-run of the Brady Bunch. (To be perfectly fair, we are currently using a TV that Adrienne’s dad gave her for Christmas a few years ago in the living room because our picture-tube TV bit the dust. Adrienne can’t get TV service in her bedroom, so her TV hadn’t been used in over a year. There is no reason why we couldn’t pick up a TV on Craig’s List or at a yard sale–a cast off from someone else’s perceived obsolescence. We will just have to fight off the feeling that we really need a new, fancy-pants flat screen.)

I think that going a step further, it’s easy to see that not only do Americans (I don’t know about other countries, but I’d assume that other rich countries have people with the same issues) suffer from up-date-itis, we also suffer from can’t-do-without-it-itis.

What, you might ask, is can’t-do-without-it-itis?

It’s what makes people think that they must have a dishwasher. Or that they can not live without Starbucks on the way to work. Or that their children will grow up to be degenerates if they don’t play five different sports a year.

That isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for dishwashers, Starbucks, or after school sports. (Or that there is. I’ve been washing dishes by hand my whole adult life, and have so far survived my string of malfunctioning appliances. I’ve also lived for three years 250 miles from the nearest Starbucks and still manage to get through my day. My kids participate in one extracurricular each. It works out fine for us. I have to admit that I donated my flared jeans to the thrift store, though.)

Think about it. Even those of us who consider ourselves environmentally conscious, could probably find at least one or two instances of regular consumption in our lives that are driven by the same social pressures that cause perceived obsolescence.

We probably can’t control the media. It’s all around us. More than we are even aware of. Until I started paying attention, I had no conscious idea that I was getting direct messages about weight loss 20 or 30 times a day. We live in a multi-media world, and just like anything that is done and done and done, it’s become invisible.

Except it’s not really invisible. What makes us think that flared jeans are out, or that picture-tube TVs need to be replaced?

What would happen if we kept wearing the same style jeans until they wore out. Or didn’t buy a new TV/phone/computer every three years? It would certainly put a cog in the industry machine, wouldn’t it?

But the fish might breathe a little easier. Our great-grandchildren, too.

We can’t control what they try to sell us. But we can certainly stop letting them slip in unnoticed.

Here is my confession: I have found myself unable to honestly consider the use of reusable feminine products. Especially washable pads. It just seems too weird to me. I feel like I have to have the disposable stuff. I also can not imagine asking my teenage daughter to use these products.

I wonder what kind of environmental atrocities are committed so that once a month I can use bleached cotton disposable pads instead of going through the tiny trouble of washing some flannel ones. And so that I don’t have to face talking to my daughter about it, too.

I blame not using washable ‘family cloths’ instead of toilet paper on Kevin. How convenient for me.

How about you? What perceived obsolescence has caused you to toss a perfectly good item? How has the can’t-do-without-it bug bitten you?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Perceived Obsolescence

  1. I didn’t have a dishwasher until I was in my mid-thirties, nor did I have a 2nd bathroom until I was in my late thirties. I haven’t purchased a new car despite having the resources because my old one gets too good gas mileage.

    I admit, I love central air, I’m not sure if I could do without that.

    • I spent 20 years living in Las Vegas. I would have told you it is impossible to live there 9 months out of the year without central air. But then one July my air conditioner broke. I was a single mother with no money. We lived the rest of that summer (which in Vegas lasts until November) without air conditioning. Adrienne and Nick were like 8 and 9. We lived in my bedroom. Every available fan went in there. We put them in the open windows to draw in fresh air at night (not cool air, it was 100 degrees round the clock until September). We went to bed in wet shirts. We used water bottles to squirt water into the fans,which sprayed back at us like a mist which was actually very cool. (I’m a little shocked we didn’t electrocute ourselves.) We drank a lot of water, and spent a lot of time away from home. It was not a fun summer. But it did show me that without a doubt Vegas is not a liveable place should air conditioning become unavailable. There is a reason why not many people lived in the area prior to Bugsy Segall and the Flamingo in the 50s.

      I have this policy. I never say I can’t do without something. The universe usually finds a way to prove me wrong! (Eventually I find a way to be grateful for the lesson.)

  2. Rebelling against planned/perceived obsolescence is a convenient justification for, and slick way of coping with being a failure in the traditional sense. Nope, I don’t have a mortgage for a starter home, nor a nice salaried position. Those shortcomings were unintentional, but thankfully I can claim to be repulsed by… consumerism and the ravaging of the planet as a fallback plan to save face. What little face I have left.

  3. gay face

    i think this is soooo great

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