Monday, September 26, 2022

Ethical Obsolescence Management

My mother has a lightbulb that is about a hundred years old and still lights up. It had belonged to her parents, and she refers to it as an 'Edison bulb.' The story goes that lightbulbs could always have been made to work indefinitely without burning out, but then there would be no market for lightbulbs. Planned obsolescence was the solution. Simply put, if lightbulbs are made to burn out after a period of use, people will have to buy more, and the market for lightbulbs can continue. Something similar is happening now with smart TVs, though it is less 'planned obsolescence' and more 'obsolescence-by-innovation.'

Someone I know received the email above from Hulu a while back. One of the downsides to smart TV technology is that it becomes outdated relatively quickly, especially in comparison to traditional linear television. When I was growing up (Gen Xer here) my family had the same TV in the living room from the time I was 5 until well after I headed off for college. The only reason we got that one when I was 5 was that the old one had been destroyed by a lightning strike to the antenna on the house. Otherwise we probably would have had the same one from before I was born all the way through.

The days of buying a TV and using it for decades are gone. Now that TVs and computer technology are integrated there will naturally be a limit to the useful life of a smart TV. Improvements in hardware and changes in software will add up, eventually rendering older models less and less useful. There are TVs in use right now that in 10 years, even if they are still perfectly functional otherwise, will no longer be supported for most smart TV apps. 

The amount of electronic waste that this is creating should leave us all concerned. Obsolescence leads to the dump, unless good e-waste recycling programs are in place. 

I have two suggestions. First, when you go to buy a new TV, be willing to pay a little extra for the latest model. Getting a slightly older model on clearance means the device will have a shorter useful life. Second, have a plan for how you'll properly dispose of electronics. Investigate e-waste recycling in your area and be ready to dispose responsibly of that not-so-old TV when it no longer serving its purpose fully. Really, you should know where and how to send all of your electronics off for recycling. Please don't just dump it all in the trash.