What follows is just a hunch of mine. I have not done much research to verify its validity so maybe you should not take it too seriously. 

My ‘Apple’ conspiracy theory has to do with what I think the marketing strategy of the company ‘Apple’ is. Imagine that Apple intend to make a washing machine. The company will instruct its R+D teams to design the best washing machine that it is possible to make. The R+D teams will do this and hand in a blueprint for an absolutely amazing washing machine.

But this amazing washing machine will not be the actual machine that ends up on sale. What Apple will do is take that design for the best washing machine, and make it crappier. Now, why would they do such a thing? The reason is this: In doing so they increase the likelihood of repeat sales. You see, if they released the best possible washing machine, people would only buy one each. After all, why would you ever purchase another washing machine if the one you already own is the best of all possible washing machines? But if Apple sell you an inferior washing machine, they can then sell you essentially the same product over and over again. So like, you bought the iWash but, hey, now there is the iWash2 which is better in some way, and then there is the iWash3. And so on.

In other words, Apple use planned obsolesence to increase sales. They deliberately withhold technological innovations they could manufacture into their product, and then gradually reintroduce such features in products that are promoted as being all new but are really just the same darn thing with added bells and whistles.

I can think of a couple of things Apple are known to have done which lend weight to my hunch. First of all there is the original iPad and its lack of inbuilt camera. Why did it not have an inbuilt camera? The idea that it was not technically possible to add a camera seems exceedingly unlikely, given that every phone came with a camera by the time iPad was released. I think the reason why iPad did not have a camera was because Apple intended to sell the public iPads and then sell the public iPad2s (now with two inbuilt cameras!). They sold us the same product twice. Maybe the retina screen was not technically possible when the original iPad came out. But, then again, maybe it was and the company deliberately used an inferior display for the first two iPads just so they could sell us the same product not once, not twice, but three times.

The other odd feature I want to bring to attention is a particular screw that can be found on the back of iPhones. This screw is incompatible with just about every screwdriver people own. Why would Apple go to the effort of making a screw that does not work with any screwdriver people are likely to have? Does it make the product better in some way? No.  The reason why is because if they used a normal screw, people could remove the back cover and replace the battery. But, since they cannot remove the cover (because they cannot undo that screw) they cannot replace the battery and have to purchase a whole new phone once the battery they have expires. This is another kind of planned obsolence. We live in a throwaway culture where systematic repairs are made to be too awkward, leaving us little choice but to throw away something that could be fixed and buy it all over again.

Of course, if Apple really are deliberatlely selling us inferior products the blame does not like solely with them. We consumers must also share some responsibility for going out and buying Apple products knowing full well that, next year or next month or next week (depending on how soon they think they can get away with it) the company is bound to release a newer version which is a bit better. Or maybe not even better in any real technical sense. I recall a BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’ in which a man queuing up at midnight to get the latest iPhone was asked what features the new one had that his current iPhone lacked. He thought long and hard and eventually came with with the following justification: The new iPhone was a different color.

The ‘Men Who Made Us Spend’ was largely about how market economies changed from selling us products we need to selling us lifestyles. A good example of what I mean would be the ‘Pepsi Paradox’. When people taste Cola from Pepsi or from Coca-Cola, and they cannot tell which is which, most people prefer the taste of Pepsi. But Coca-Cola is the best-selling brand. A neuroscientific study performed the blind taste test on subjects while their brains were scanned by fMRI. As per usual, Pepsi was the clear favourite. When drinking Pepsi, the subjects’ brain scans showed more activity in the ventral-putamen compared to when they drunk Coca-Cola.  The ventral-putamen is part of the brain’s reward system, so increased activity in this area means ‘this feels good’.

The really interesting result came about when the subjects tasted the cola drinks knowing which was which. When they tasted both Pepsi and Coca Cola knowing which drink was which, the subjects declared the taste of Coca Cola to be superior. Brain scans showed increased activity , not in the ventral-putamen, but rather in the medial prefrontal-cortex. This part of the brain is responsible for our self-identity. When we drink Coca-cola, we are not just influenced by how nice it actually tastes but also by the brand, the lifestyle that the company promotes to sell its product. Coca-Cola have done a better job than Pepsi at the whole self-identity thing, making us believe with are with the in-crowd if we consume their product. Their campaigns are so successful it actually creates a kind of virtual reality in which Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you know you are drinking Coca-cola.

If you want to sell people the same product over and over again there is probably no better market to do this in than one which sells lifestyles. It is pretty obvious that this is what companies do these days. For one thing, most companies now spend more money on advertising than they do on the manufacture of the product itself. And next time you watch the commercials notice how many have a love theme. Happy, good-looking people in a blissful relationship walking hand in hand while drinking from Coca-cola bottles or asking Siri for directions to the restraunt. Want to be like these people? Buy our product. Oh, haven’t you heard? The in-crowd would no longer be seen dead with product you have. You really need to purchase the new product (now in a different color!). You would not want everybody to think you are a loser, would you?

Why does it matter if we are being psychologically manipulated into buying inferior products, if we are happy? If, in your own mind that drink tastes great, isn’t that all that matters? If some guy is eager to own a phone which is a different color to the one he has, why should we get upset about this? We should get upset because it is so wasteful.  Planned obsolenece, perhaps more than anything else, highlights the difference between market efficiency and technical efficiency. From the perspective of technical efficiency a product is best if it is designed to work at the optimum possible level of performance and if its component parts are easily replaceable. But from the market efficiency perspective the ideal product is one which can be resold as many times as a company thinks it can get away with, and that means making products that cannot be repaired and must instead be replaced. It means making products that are designed to fail or become osbolete earlier than they theoretically should. The myth of the everlasting lightbulb is just that- a myth. However, what is not a myth is that, in the past lightbulb manufacturers formed a cartel which deliberately reduced the lifetime of bulbs. The sooner they fail, the sooner you buy a replacement, see. Or what about printer cartridges? You probably think that when the ‘toner is running low’ message pops up, that means the printer is running low on ink. And if you take it to a shop that refills cartridges, they will top up its ink. But, actually, some printer manufacturers fitted their cartridges with devices (mechanical in some cases, computer chips in others) that count the number of pages being printed. When a certain number is reached, the chip makes the printer stop working. It is not running out of ink and when you take the cartridge to be refilled all they really do is reset the device.  If you want proof, watch that documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Spend’. You will see this guy explain how printer cartridges are made to fail early. He even resets the device and succeeds in printing out hundreds of more pages without topping up the ink levels at all. Again, they are selling you the same product over and over again when, in a system based not on market efficiency but technical efficiency, you would make far less purchases.

But there is more to get upset about than just the case that we are being treated as suckers. So much stuff is ending up as trash. According to some estimates, if we continue like we are, in a few-decades’ time we will require 27 Earths to provide sufficient resources to retain our consumerist, throwaway lifestyles. Pro-capitalists will dismiss such concerns, reasoning that innovation will surely save the day. Companies compete to out-innovate one another, to bring out superior products which, by any rational course of action, would outsell rival products that are not as well put together. Now, I do not doubt that ephemeralization is a real thing. Ephemeralization means ‘doing more with less’. A hard drive of yesterday that was the size of a fridge and could store a megabyte becomes, in time, a thumb-sized flash drive that stores 16 gigabytes.  But the fact is that our market economy has little interest in emphasising technical efficiency.  It is more profitable to release inferior products and then subsequent versions of the same product with some improvements, rather than give us the best possible product right away. And oh how the waste piles up.

I shall end on an optimistic note. That screw which Apple designed gave one entrepreneur a good idea: He could manufacture and sell a screwdriver that is compatible with that screw. Now, thanks to his product, people can much more easily replace the battery and do not need to buy a whole new phone. It just goes to show that sometimes planned obsolesence opens up a gap in the market that can be filled in useful ways, allowing us to be less wasteful than we were before. 

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  1. *facepalms* You are just now figuring this out, dear?

    It’s part and parcel of the “Economics of Scarcity” model of doing business, which Apple is very firmly now a part of, and only reluctantly, when forced, does it actually try to engage in Abundance economics.

    For example, note how much patent trolling Apple has done, as well as it’s attempts to introduce such things as “kill switches” in the camera if someone tries to use it for “unapproved uses” like recording a concert. Apple wants EVERYTHING to be under complete Apple control, and if they could FORCE you to buy a new iProduct everytime they develop a new model, they would. Apple is exactly the “Evil Corporation” it once accused IBM of being.

    But then, what do you expect of a company created and run by a person who STOLE EVERYTHING he ever made money off of?

  2. Robert Bynum says:

    Agree that Apple creates products with an upgrade path to extend product sales. Just wondering why have a screw at all?

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