Should Smartphone Manufacturers Engage in Planned Obsolescence?

Group 54

Large electronics companies have developed engaging, ground-breaking technologies that live in our pockets. However, despite being a feat of technological development, the performance of many smartphones deteriorates within 2 years. Phone functionality reduces due to a process called planned obsolescence; the designing of engineered components or software to systematically falter after a specific period of time. In the smartphone industry this takes the form of reducing battery capacity, slower processing speed and access to new developments. The method is used to encourage consumers to upgrade to a newer product at the risk of losing customer loyalty. In recent years, companies such as Apple and Samsung have been investigated and sued over planned obsolescence and these cases are leading the debate on the ethics of such a practise.

Yes

Planned obsolescence generates long term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. This increase in sales frequency generates money that drives technological advancement, which can in itself be considered beneficial to society. This alone cannot necessarily be considered moral from a utilitarian standpoint. However, due to competition within a free market it could be assumed that this advancement would transpire regardless of the frequency of a company’s sales, as companies compete to “one-up” each other and attract customer loyalty. It is also assumed that consumers are likely to always upgrade their smartphone to the best available on the market. This opens the door for a positive morale argument in support of planned obsolescence and is a valid assumption due to the hyper-connected, social media culture of the modern day. This makes people feel the need to keep up with trends, even in their choice of smartphone. With this taken into account, engineering a phone to last a few years and thus decreasing the quality and quantity of materials used ensures that when a phone is ‘out of date’ the minimum amount of materials will be thrown away. Planned obsolescence ensures that products break at a time when they are no longer usable in the current technological environment ensuring costs remain low for consumers. From the consequentialist standpoint, this can be considered morally good as it results in less materials being thrown away and wasted, a reduced rate of depletion of finite resources and cheaper products for customers.  

The second line of argument is founded in the utilitarian moral theory. It could be said that the driving forward of technological advancement in the shortest time possible creates the most amount of good for the most people by making beneficial technologies available to more people, providing long term jobs and improving general quality of life. The reduced material in the phone reduces the price for first hand buyers, increasing accessibility. The quick turnover caused by planned obsolescence also ensures that older smartphone models decrease in price more rapidly than they would if they had a longer product cycle. This is partly made possible by the large second-hand market for smartphones and makes beneficial technology available to those who previously couldn’t afford it. The required rate of manufacture of handsets creates thousands of jobs for people in developing countries. This provides a stable source of income for people who would otherwise live in abject conditions without this employment. Therefore, an argument could be made that the increase in quality of life through modern technology and stable employment outweighs the negative environmental effect discussed in the ‘against’ argument.

No

Planned obsolescence can bring short term positive consequences, as stated in the opposing argument, but it can be argued that its long-term consequences, especially on the environment and economic disparity, largely outweigh these benefits. By expanding the scope of consequences in a consequentialist framework, negative effects on the environment and child labour can be considered. Causing smartphones to break on purpose inevitably leads to environmental damage This is due to the energy associated with manufacture and development of smartphones, as well as the unsustainable mining of natural ores particularly in Central Africa .There have been multiple documented cases of human rights abuses of workers, including children, who work within these mines, leading many to criticise the ethics of companies such as Apple. Furthermore, the natural ore that is mined, primarily for use in touchscreens, is finite. Planned obsolescence hugely exacerbates the long term unsustainable mining process causing increased environmental damage. A recent climate reports suggest that a 1.5°C is likely by 2052 causing an increase in sea level displacing upwards of 10 million people.

In addition to the consequentialist case against planned obsolescence, there is also a deontological case. In Kant’s ‘Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals’ he formulates the categorical imperative [1]. Part of the categorical imperative is the idea of why we make choices and not the consequences that stem from those choices. This is exemplified by Kant, “Always recognise that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end”. The companies who make smart phones primarily engage in planned obsolescence to increase sales of units, increasing revenues and wealth for shareholders. Therefore, the reason for engaging in the behaviour is to use consumers as a means to an end of increasing revenue. In the deontological framework this justification for planned obsolescence is immoral due to the reason why companies engage in this behaviour. Large smartphone manufacturers justify planned obsolescence by short term consequentialist benefits, yet we have already seen how by expanding our concept of consequences there are many long-term consequences affecting both the environment and human rights. We have also seen how the reasons why companies engage in this practice treat ‘humans as a means to an ends’ leading to exploitation, income inequality and encourage economic reliance of vulnerable consumers.

Reference:

[1] Kant, Immanuel, and Allen W Wood. n.d. Groundwork For The Metaphysics Of Morals.

5 thoughts on “Should Smartphone Manufacturers Engage in Planned Obsolescence?

  1. I’m against planned obsolescence on the grounds of virtue ethics. There is nothing virtuous, to my thinking, about designing something that breaks. I fully support innovation and I fully accept that over time my phone may age and that newer phones have more features, or more improvements but I don’t like to be forced into a decision.

    I would change my stance if planned obsolescence was resulting in more effective recycling since that would make most, if not all, of us happy.

  2. Interesting work! Planned obsolescence would require an upheaval of how technology companies run their business. Apple would be much smaller costing how much to the economy? and how many jobs? Its not ideal that so much is wasted but it would require a huge shift to change this now. Maybe they could be a bit more upfront about it!

  3. Really interesting article guys.

    I’m of the opinion that planned obsolescence is definitely necessary. The amount of people in development, manufacturing and the further supply chain is enormous and many would be out of a job if phones lasted much longer. If the technology can be recycled then the turnover is helping those in very poor communities.

  4. I agree with DrPatrickJS that designing a product with flaws goes against everything that an engineer should really be doing. i believe that with a better repair and trade in program then there can still be an appetite for new smartphones to ensure that companies don’t see a drop in revenue.

  5. This is an important topic! I think there should be way more regulation around this sort of thing, many customers simply don’t know they are essentially loaning a phone for two years!

    Seems a sensible next step to move to a subscription service way of renting a phone instead of buying one? I personally think the whole thing is wrong and I would rather keep my old nokia and not be forced into anything!

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