Artificial fragility

Back in June, the power jack on my four-year-old Sony Vaio laptop fell apart, leaving the outdated but nonetheless functional machine a mere 30 minutes (the lifespan of its degraded battery) from a perpetual shutdown. Sony computers once shipped with a three-year warranty, meaning the manufacturer would cover the cost of all repairs within three years of purchase, but now offer just one year. I decided that I would turn my computer over to Sony anyway and let them bring me the news. They charged me HK$500 ($65) to have it inspected, taking a week to do so, before demanding a further HK$2850 (US$368) to have the necessary repairs carried out.

That’s right. $368 to have a simple power jack replaced. I searched up a few listings for Sony Vaio power jacks on eBay:

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A $368 repair bill for a component that costs no more than a dollar. Plus a bit of labour. Okay, maybe a good deal of labour. But paying half the cost of the computer when it was new just to replace a 99-cent power jack? Something didn’t add up. So I brought the brought the laptop to a small repair shop in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. The process took three days and cost me a mere HK$350 (US$45) – less than what Sony charged me to have its repair crew take its time mulling over it without actually carrying out any repairs.

It’s clear that the amount Sony was about to charge me was less a reflection of the true cost of repairing the computer than a penalty for sending it in for repairs on an expired warranty – essentially a slap on the wrist followed by a stern “The warranty expired last year, you idiot.” This was a clear case of planned obsolescence: tech companies like Sony not only sabotage its own products to increase their proneness to failure (I’d turned the same computer in for repairs on at least four previous occasions) but also charge extortionate prices for repairs beyond an unacceptably short and even declining warranty period. The aim? To create the artificial need, or “demand”, as economists like to call it, for us to replace our products that have failed, and, in the process, boost their profits through our consumption.

Planned obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of the profit motive. Tech companies aiming to maximize profits seek to maximize revenues by creating artificial demand through compromising the durability of their products and imposing “repair penalties”, as well as to minimize costs by evading their responsibility to provide support for them. And it’s important to note that the costs that firms try to “minimize” don’t simply go away – it’s merely the cost to the firm that’s “minimized”, which leaves the rest of us to bear them. Those of us who don’t have access to independent repair shops, as I had the privilege of resorting to, have no real option but to throw our misfiring devices out and buy new ones. That costs our wallets, the planet and the health of other people: our precious dollars are spent on new devices that will likely later suffer the same fate, and the toxic heavy metals in our electronic waste ends up either in landfills where they are assimilated into the earth or in developing countries such as Bangladesh, India and China, where everyday citizens are forced to live among them.

Economists write off the costs evaded by businesses as mere “externalities”. Dismissing them as such amounts to denying a simple truth: that the profit motive is the driving force behind the capitalist system, and, as profit maximization leads ultimately to the evasion of costs by companies, capitalism is the underlying cause of planned obsolescence and its devastating social and environmental consequences. As long as companies are allowed and encouraged to maximize profits with zero concern for the repercussions of doing so, they will enjoy an “incentive”, as economists refer to it, to sabotage their own products as a means of coercing us into consuming beyond our needs. After all, more new computers and smartphones for us means more dollars for them.

Government regulations that force firms to pay the full costs of their activities, or as much of it as possible, are welcome. We could certainly do with far more extensive extended product responsibility schemes to force tech companies to meet predetermined durability criteria and to offer substantial warranty periods. Massive citizen mobilization will be needed to counter the power of lobbyists and corporate dollars and make these demands clear to governments across the industrialized world. But the heavy hand of the state isn’t enough on its own, nor can it be relied upon in capitalist societies where governments are often complicit in the abuses of their corporations. The nature of business itself needs to change, moving away from the capitalist ethos of maximizing profits to an ethos under which profits are generated such that the business can be sustained, but without externalizing social and environmental costs.

On this note, I’d like to reserve a bit of praise for the technicians at the repair shop that spared my laptop from the greed of its mercenary manufacturer. They certainly had both the skills and the negotiating power (particularly given the exorbitant prices Sony were prepared to charge) to charge me far more than they did, but chose not to, and filled a void in providing an oft-needed service at a reasonable and affordable price. Any movement against a capitalist ethos in business will need instruments with which to resist the abuses of cost-evading corporations, and this leaves an important role for independent repair shops and repair cafes, not only of electronic devices but of all of the various “consumer goods” that we consume far too much of. Repair skills are few and far between in the post-industrial society we live in, and those who possess them could do the world a great service both by offering these skills reasonably and affordably and by passing them on to others. It’s only by offering and carrying out repair as an alternative to the cycle of consumption and disposal that we can not only overcome planned obsolescence but also move away from the profit-maximizing capitalist ethos that has dominated modern society for far too long.

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