Iphone 13: Necessity or not?

Under my bed, there is a cardboard box filled with iPhones, starting from the ridiculously small iPhone 4, to the most recent iPhone 13. Looking at my “phone collection” I could not help but wonder: Why do we replace our phones and technological devices so often?

Iphone 13: Necessity or not?
"A smaller Pink Pastel iPhone 13 with 2 cameras or a 6.7-inch-screen Sierra Blue iPhone 13 Pro Max with 3 "bubbles"? Which one do you prefer?"

Under my bed, there is a cardboard box filled with iPhones, starting from the ridiculously small iPhone 4, to the most recent iPhone 13. Nothing is particularly wrong with them, they just got "replaced" every year by their younger but greater brothers due to my preference to switch to the latest model and the sluggishness of the outdated version. Initially, it may strike you as excessive, or “stinking rich”, but I am sure this is also the case shared between many individuals.

Source: My Mega IPhone collection 2021 - NickAckerman

Not many of us would have a collection as extensive as youtuber NickAckerman’s depicted above, but we would certainly have some iPhones in our box.. Looking at my “phone collection” I could not help but wonder: Why do we replace our phones and technological devices so often? Why do “Centennial Light” lightbulbs produced in 1890 still function smoothly until now, whilst modern phones frequently “visit the hospital”? Certainly, modern manufacturers have enough ability to produce a more sustainable product so why does this substitution continue to happen?

Do companies purposely make their products obsolete?

Back in December of 1924, a world meeting among the heads of lightbulb manufacturers occurred in Geneva, which created a baleful decision on how long they should limit the lifespan of their lightbulb. The given argument was that the quicker the bulb fails, the more the customers would need to re-purchase, which would drive their total sales. This led to a revolutionary new strategy: purposely creating products to FAIL. Through 2 main avenues: planned obsolescence and perceived obsolescence, companies made their products seem useless or actually become useless, forcing the user to get rid of them before their realistic lifespan. In this article, we will focus on planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is "a strategy of deliberately ensuring that the current version of a given product will become out of date or useless within a known time period" (Investopedia). It is different from perceived obsolescence, which is the frequent replacement of unfashionable items with stylistic models to bolster consumers' desires. Simply, the lower efficiency of your flashy cell phone and your desire to replace it with the most current flagship are all part of an elaborate plan by manufacturers to get you to buy more. How on earth do they do that? To find out, let’s break down a case study of Apple - one of the leading corporations to successfully apply this practice.

How did Apple treat “bad” with your pocket?

With a market cap of $2 trillion in 2020, Apple is one of the most valuable companies around the globe. Any new device embedded with an apple on its cover always attracts extraordinary attention from the public. And with the continuous introduction of new models every year persuading millions of people to buy new cell phones, Apple is notoriously masterful at planned obsolescence. Let’s use Apple as a case study to understand how a manufacturer “tricks” us to continuously purchase new products. In the book The Waste Makers, the author, Vance Packard, mentioned three prongs of planned obsolescence: obsolescence of function, obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of quality.

The first way, obsolescence of function, is through manufacturing better products than the previous. The emergence of more versatile products makes consumers feel they are cheap, old-fashioned for not buying the latest, shiny flagship. But take a closer look at the newly released iPhone 13 ProMax and ask yourself: is it really that different from iPhone 12? Promax? Honestly speaking, the two only things I can perceive are the camera's size and the new color. There are certainly technological innovations in efficiency, battery, and so on but these discrepancies remain hard to detect to the majority of users, let alone fully utilized. Why do these Wundermachines sell like hot cakes, then? One possible rationale is the customers' desire to have the most state-of-art widget. This phenomenon is also linked to the following method...

Obsolescence of desirability. This avenue is conducted by "making the newest version of a particular product desirable, intentionally doing so to the detriment of its predecessors." That is to say, besides launching a new handset with all-singing, all-dancing iteration,  manufacturers also try to accelerate the customer's desirability by intentionally slowing the efficiency of older models. Since 2017, after admitting to deliberately degrading iPhones and battery health through iOS updates, Apple has got smacked with multiple class-action lawsuits. Until now, Apple is still often being sued over alleged iPhone "planned obsolescence." The diminishing efficiency of older models makes the cutting-edge technology of newly released phones all the more attractive, stirring up customer’s desires.

Finally, obsolescence of quality is the action of creating a product that aims to break down before its expected lifetime. The phone battery is a case in point. After about 2-3 years of peak performance, the battery of iPhones begin to wear out. But if you want to change the battery, it is not as simple as popping off the back phone and putting in the replacement. Moreover, Apple prohibited any individual repair stores and try to be exclusive in their market. Pentalobe screws were embedded in iPhone 6s, which cannot be easily removed by consumer tools. In case you can replace the battery, the repair cost is alarmingly expensive, which makes consumers consider buying a new one rather than coughing up money on an aged iPhone.  In other words, consumers are put into a dilemma when they can not dismantle and would inadvertently damage the devices.

Source: Apple Insider

Though Apple is the center of criticism surrounding planned obsolescence in tech, it is not the only enterprise guilty of it. The same problem also happens with Samsung, Canon, Tesla, and so on. However, we are here not to blame any particular company but to examine, to analyze to become a more intelligent purchaser.

On one hand, planned Obsolescence harms vulnerable communities and the environment.

Planned obsolescence affects our wallets, well-being, and planet. Finance is not a significant problem for the rich when a wealthier U.S. resident just needs to work for about 6 days to purchase an iPhone 13 ProMax. However, the financial burden put on the poor is ignored. When a new iOS updates, new software is introduced, their "ancient" predecessors become more sluggish, and the battery is exhausted in a short time. This degradation forces low-and-middle income consumers to splurge on a brand-new device or repair services. In time, excessive consumption of new products and shortening life cycles of old products create a throw-away society.

Although some people resell their used handsets or trade them with others, what is more concerning is that there is no way to effectively recycle old tech-gadgets and the piles of e-waste in landfills pose dangerous threats to the environment. In fact, in 2019, global e-waste reached 50 million tonnes, 20% of which is considered recyclable. Furthermore, according to a 2018 Canadian university study, it is estimated that the amount of CO2 generated from manufacturing a new smartphone accounts for 85-95% of this device's total emissions for 2 years. In more simple words, buying a new smartphone consumes an equal amount of energy with using and recharging it in ten years. And of course, the entailed repercussions are put on our health when we have more frequent exposure to CO2 emissions.

Source: Geographic.co.uk

On the other hand, planned obsolescence drives innovation

Given such worrisome consequences, why does planned obsolescence still exist? First and foremost, planned obsolescence rakes in cash for manufacturers, whose main goal is to maximize profit. Even though Apple annually hits the public with new models that are generally just an incremental innovation on the previous one rather than a great leap forward, thousands of people are willing to purchase it at an extortionate price. This is the reason why many companies still embrace the consumerism policy. Additionally, planned obsolescence also fosters novel ideas and innovation. If a company has a durable product, consumers will have less incentive to re-purchase. As a result, the turnover will deplete, eventually leading to closure, while employees have no incentive to innovate, to come up with new ideas. We have to admit that despite the high frequency of a new iPhone released by Apple, each of them is a more modern one, and comparing the iPhone in 2021 with the iPhone in 2016, it is such a tremendous improvement. The requirement of continuous new functions on products to introduce every year unintentionally leads to impressive technological progress, sometimes, breakthroughs. Thus, planned obsolescence is almost inevitable because companies need profit, and humans need innovation to raise the convenience and standard of living.

Should we purchase a new iPhone 13?

Back to our main concern surrounding the consideration of whether to buy an iPhone 13 or not, I believe that each person has their own answer for this question, based on different criteria including but not limited to: your need, your financial capability, your work requirements. Whatever your answer is, remember to ask yourself if the purchase stems from necessity, or fear of missing out. More consumption does not always lead to more happiness. The Easterlin Paradox states that after our basic necessities are met, any more consumption does little impact our happiness. Placed side-by-side, is the flashy new iPhone more appealing, or your long-term happiness after purchasing. Is this iPhone really a basic requirement? Let’s be smart consumers.

Tác giả: Nguyễn Thu Hà Anh (Hành)