Why they don’t make ‘em like they used to.
It was about 8 years ago when my wife and I moved into our house. It didn't come with appliances, which we initially saw as an inconvenience. After thinking about it, we determined this as a perfect opportunity to buy all new appliances that matched and were of the quality we expected. So obviously, we bought the best of the best.*
Everything we selected was stainless steel, and trimmed in black, as was the leading aesthetic of the time. First, we bought a new fridge. It was so advanced, it could tell us how many ounces of water we dispensed from the door. It was pretty impressive, because you could set any glass under the spout, select 12 ounces and then after it overflowed the 10 ounce glass, you would spend precious seconds searching for the button to stop the water from flowing. While this is supposed to measure how much water we're drinking, we ended up doing more measuring of how much water we were throwing away trying to figure out the optimal fill level for our various cup sizes.
We selected the top washer and dryer set. It was a matching front loader, cutting edge brand with smart features that practically do the laundry for you. The washer has some way of sensing the amount of dirty clothes you just shoved in it and is able to determine all the settings for you. Washing a small load? She'll only fill up halfway. Need another rinse cycle? She's got you covered. Want to wash in hot water? There's probably a setting for that somewhere too. The dryer could even sense the wetness of your clothes. When it decided your clothes were optimal for wearing, it stopped for you, no matter how long you wanted it to run. It even played a song for you that was sort of like a ringtone you bought for a flip phone. It played the whole song every time, there was no option to turn it off.
The oven was an upgrade for us too. It came with a convection feature which my wife can explain better than I can. It also was equipped with a number of buttons that add several new steps to turning the oven "on" but are nonetheless an advancement in technology over "knobs". We purchased a matching microwave which hung above it, complete with hood. Of course it had everybody's favorite button to initiate the "popcorn" setting (a feature now considered ubiquitous). It also had a little light in case you needed 3% more light below your microwave.
Lastly, we bought the greatest vacuum cleaner you can imagine.** It had all the attachments, weird joints and pivot points that allow you to reach into tiny places, vacuum furniture, and more.
What we didn't buy is a toaster. We didn’t need one. We’ve had the same trash toaster since we got married. Let me tell you about it’s features:
It toasts bread.
It has two settings. --On-- & --Not on--
Okay, so what if out of the blue, we decided we wanted darker toast than every other piece of bread we’ve ever toasted? -- Yeah, there’s a dial. It can make it darker if you want. Want it even darker? Plunk it down again. Done.
So now that we're living the good life, what can go wrong?
I'll tell you.
About two years later, the fancy washer dies. Classically, it gave up the ghost when the least amount of clean laundry was available. It acted confused for a while, making bad laundry decisions, and then eventually just quit. The repairman said the circuit board went bad, and would cost almost as much as the washer itself to repair. Don’t worry, we still have the dryer and we still have that effing song to give us a heads up about the dryer finishing.
Next, the fridge starts to break. It still runs and keeps things cold, but it has some kind of leak that fills the bottom of the unit where the freezer is, forming a sheet of ice that eventually overwhelms the machine and starts leaking out. Okay fine, the fridge still works but now our new bi-weekly ritual is for my wife to climb underneath the pull out freezer drawer, stabbing at the floorboard of the freezer with our cheapest knife to break out sheets of ice while I do literally anything else.
Then one day the convection oven starts playing games with us. It still has the on feature, but it's just a regular oven with inaccurate temperature settings and uneven heating. For some reason it will fake like it still works fully for awhile, but most of the time the convection feature just doesn’t convecktch (sp?).
And yes, the dryer did decide to join its partner in appliance purgatory. Don’t misunderstand me. The ring tone didn’t stop working at all. In fact it started working MORE. The dryer flat out quit drying, but the machine would do us the courtesy of running for a minute or two and then singing a song to us to claim it was done, having accomplished nothing. That expensive vacuum? It died, but there is whole tweet thread on that one.
And then the microwave takes a piss. Of course it still microwaves things just fine, but you can’t open it unless you have strong fingernails. When the handle broke off, I tried to glue on a new handle, only to find the stainless steel covering started peeling off too. We're left with a nice microwave and hood hanging above the stove in our kitchen that has a sheet of steel flapping at you.
So what happened to the toaster?
It still works. Perfectly. In fact, we’ve had it so long that we gave it away out of guilt because we’d never had anything last that long ever. We’ve literally replaced every other appliance or at least played chicken with them to see who gives up first.
They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
See, here’s the thing. When we were kids, our parents invested in things they would keep forever. Scratch that. Our grandparents. A craftsman had a set of tools that lasted him for life and he drove his truck until it exploded which was probably a generation later. They would put plastic over their furniture to make sure it lasted. Heck, my grandma would even put plastic over her head to protect her curls. Not only do our appliances and other products not last anymore, we've developed a culture that expects to upgrade things with the latest version.
This whole situation was intentional. It started with the automobile industry in 1924. As cars became more and more common, unit sales began to drop because of market saturation. Alfred Sloan, an executive at General Motors introduced the idea of model years with design changes. At the Ford Motor Company, Henry was resistant to this idea, as it was contrary to his engineering mindset. His original philosophy in launching the company was making products consistently to support mass production, and reduce costs–the reason why car ownership had become so widespread in the first place. Ford had a hard time embracing design changes, and in 1931 GM outsold Ford for the first time, putting them in the leading role among car makers, which they've been able to maintain to this day.
All of this was happening in the early stages of The Great Depression. During this time, many economists and politicians were trying to figure out how to get the economy back on track when Bernard London introduced a concept called planned obsolescence. It was about 1932 when he wrote a pamphlet (kids, this would be sort of like a blog of the 1930s) called "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence". His concept was to introduce Government imposed legal obsolescence on personal use items. He posits that the end of life for goods would increase purchasing habits and boost the economy.
This all sounds great when you think about what this does for investors and perhaps it creates jobs, but is this better for the economy as a whole? If we think bigger than just today's profits and jobs, there may be a worthy debate to be had about how this impacts us over generations. If we create jobs, but purchasing burdens are higher, do we have a net gain?
Today, there's a Texas-sized floating heap of trash in the ocean. It's actually two of them, all caught in an oceanic vortex known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. While it's mostly microplastics, it's certainly worrisome that pretty soon, my fridge is going to be floating (or sinking) out somewhere between California and Japan, broken down into parts and I'll have a new one with a dozen new features (the ice machine still won't work right though). Shortly after, my microwave, and my vacuum will join them on the never ending journey in the sea, only to be met by the next appliance after that.
I'll still have my toaster though, because it just makes toast. No popcorn button, no clock to reset, no ring tone. Just toast.
Why can't we make more things like toasters and less things like smart fridges? Things we can keep? BTW, I have a college dorm size fridge in my garage that is filled with nothing but Coors Lite. It has zero fancy features. It's only feature is "on", and it has cost me almost nothing. It is literally the oldest refrigeration unit I have ever owned.
My message to makers: make something we want to keep.
*Footnote: We did not buy the best of the best but we bought nice stuff that we found good deals on.
**I might have imagined this part.