Planned Obsolescence vs. Designed Deterioration


Core77 points us to a great essay by designer Khoi Vinh about the relationship between planned obsolescence -- the idea that objects are designed with a specific lifetime in mind -- and "designed deterioration" -- the very TreeHugger idea that we should be designing objects that actually improve with age. Held up as examples are digital hardware (like the iPhone) vs. a cast-iron pan.
I've noticed recently that the concept of what we might call designed deterioration is fairly anathema to digital hardware. The objects we purchase from purveyors of digital technology are conceived only up to the point of sale; the inevitable nicks, scratches, weathering, and fading they will encounter is not factored in at all. The result is that as they see more use, their ignorance may recede, but they wear it poorly. They don't age gracefully.
A striking (and unfortunate) irony in this is the ubiquity with which this digital hardware has so fully integrated itself in our lives. Though a case can be made that the iPhone will be the last phone you'll buy, planned obsolescence and technological advancement suggest otherwise; yet, Apple still sold approximately 500,000 of them during the gadget's opening weekend of sale. A similar case can be made for Apple's iPod, which Steve Jobs suggested that "If you always want the latest and greatest, then you have to buy a new iPod at least once a year." Check out our review of "Made to Break" for more on this.

While digital hardware that "ages gracefully" may be something of a pipe dream, there is definitely something to be learned from the iron skillet paradigm that Vinh mentions:

It’s a little unbecoming when you think about it; in fact, though I clean it, it’s a dirty piece of cookware, and it resembles its original, store-bought state not at all. But it’s also a beautiful piece of design. After cooking in it and cleaning it up, I’ve spent a lot of time just looking it over, marveling at how its very deterioration has been incorporated into the design of the object, at how it’s gotten more attractive -- less ignorant -- the more I use it.

We've seen similar results with other kitchen items, like cutlery and things like reclaimed wood flooring and even t-shirts -- anything that involves the word "patina." Sadly, everything can't be designed (and won't be designed) to age like fine wine; Vinh sums it up thusly: "For all the beautiful design being created for digital products today, it’s a shame that we’ll hang on to so few for very long." Read the whole piece at ::Subtraction via ::Core77

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