Mailbag – Built-in Obsolescence

Dr. J. was over at Jonathan Last’s blog the other day. It is totally worth adding to your bookmarks. He discusses politics, science fiction, comics, and the decline in Western civilization that correlates with the decline in fecundity.

Dr. J. was struck by this article regarding the mythical Apple Television set (not to be confused with the Apple TV device). Jonathan basically says that he wonders what it would contain that would make it a ‘game-changer.’ Given Apple’s current business model which involves frequent refreshes of affordable hardware, will something like a TV set be viable?

Dr. J. opined at his blog saying:


My first television set (4:3) lasted from 1995 to at 2008. We replaced it because a) it was at that point obsolete and b) I could afford a bigger screen). We subsequently replaced my wife’s 1995 set in 2010. After moving this year, we purchased a third for an additional room in our new house. They all have ‘Apple TV’s’ which we use due to our large digital library. We anticipate keeping these TVs for quite some time. Therefore, my question regarding the economics of an Apple TV set, is not only the cycle life, like you address, but what’s going to make me replace these great sets I already possess. Additionally, the newest was bought to fit into a hutch in our living room, so size is a factor as well.

Basically, Dr. J. said that buying a TV is a bigger investment than an iPod, or even an iPhone. Furthermore, size can be a big factor depending on where you would be putting it in your home. Lastly, it isn’t something that you want obsolete in three years. More than anything else, it’s a window to the digital world. The ways you get to that world currently are with your cable box, bluray player, Apple TV, and other ways of getting on the internet.

Dr. J. loves his Apple TV, but he only recommends one if you have a quite bit of digital content.

Jonathan wrote back:

Dr. J, 

I’m basically with you. 

I’m very much a bleeding edge tech nerd–I had both HD DVD and Blu-Ray. But the idea of replacing a TV panel even every 5 years strikes me as kind of insane unless your living situation changes; ie, you move and are in a different space with different screen size requirements. That’s what happened to use 5 years ago when we moved. Our new place really needs a bigger screen because the main viewing area is about 6 feet further from the screen than in our old place. But even so I’ve found it hard to justify upgrading from my 42″ to the 55″ I need now. (Plus, I’m sort of waiting to see what the rate of price-drop is on the 4K screens that are going to start being pushed out over the next 12 months. Because I want one of them *bad*.) 

Hope all is well in the Gormogon lair. 



This gets to the point of built in obsolescence.

Much of our technology is disposable and if the hardware doesn’t wear out (e.g. battery life), software upgrades makes it legacyware within a few years (Dr. J.’s iPhone 3GS was an example a software upgrade 6 months before the 4S came out made me ponder buying a 4 but made me get a 4S for sure).

Dr. J.’s 10th grade Marxist American History Teacher would tell you that this is simply Da Man’s way of making you buy more stuff. Dr. J. thinks that it is a demand-side issue in that since the 1970s, folks want cheap goods more so than high quality goods, with exceptions. As a consequence, they’re built cheaply and last not very long. Indeed Dr. J. needs a new toaster. His last one was a cheapie, but it finally has begun dying after 5 years. Mama J. by contrast had the same toaster oven for the first 20 years of her marriage, and a Zenith TV set, bought with Green Stamps from the 1960s to probably 1985 or so. We did it to ourselves.  Over 20 years. Dr. J.’s lasted 13 years, but the switch to HD drove his decision to buy new TVs. He’d probably still have them if not for the switch. Dr. J. also ‘blames’ HIV. HIV really transformed the medical community to a ‘disposable’ culture. We would re-use cloth surgical drapes, glass IV bottles, etc…now we reuse many surgical instruments (clamps, scalpel handles, but not blades) but that’s about it. HIV drove medicine to a disposable mode. Dr. J. has noticed that our society has move in that direction, over that timeframe. Coincidence, maybe. But maybe not…

About Dr. J.

Dr. J. was born the son of a New Atlantean sharecropper who cornered the market on notoriously delicious seaweed Himanthalia elongata (popularly known as Thongweed). With his newly minted seaweed fortune, Mr. J. the Elder sent his son to attend the Academy of Sorcery, Alchemy and Surgery where the good doctor apprenticed with the finest sorcerer surgeons in New Atlantis. Dr. J.'s areas of expertise grew to include bleeding, cutting for stone, trephination, medical divination with outstanding spatial and temporal resolution, cybernetic sorcery and medicinal alchemy. When King Orin of Atlantis fell ill with the Ick, Dr. J. stepped in with an elixir he devised from a combination of minerals, herbs and saps. Curing the king, Dr. J. gained significant notoriety which afforded him the luxury of time to devote himself to his side hobbies which include porpoise racing, the study of supply-side economics, cooking and raising his lovely merchildren alongside his lovely bride the archconservative Mrs. Dr. J.