You should look up the phrase "planned obsolescence". It's a concept taught in many engineering schools. Apple employs it in it's products. The basic idea is similar to your thoughts under "Greater Global Wealth": the machine is designed to have a lifetime that is significantly shorter than what is possible, specifically to get users to keep buying a machine. This is essentially subscription-izing products; subscriptions are, especially today in the start up world, generally a better business model than selling one product one time (or even a couple times).

With phones, this makes perfect sense, given the pace of advancements in the phones, generation after generation.

While you would think that a poor person would optimize for durability, often durability is more expensive, meaning that the poor person's only real choice is a lower-quality product that does not last as long.

"Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials." This doesn't really follow to me. There are many reasons a manufacturer would use worse materials than the global "best materials", including lower costs. It seems to me that your idea of 'greater global implies worse local' can be equally explained as a phenomenon of capitalism, where the need to make an acceptable product as cheaply as possible does not often align with making the best product at whatever the cost.

the machine is designed to have a lifetime that is significantly shorter than what is possible, specifically to get users to keep buying a machine.

That's not what "planned obsolescence" means. Planned obsolescence means "if this machine is going to fail in X years anyway (because of one or more critical parts, or because technical progress means that replacing it in that timeframe makes more sense anyway), it makes no sense to design it to be longer-lived than that. So let's improve efficiency and cut costs by redesigning everything in i... (read more)

2Tyrrell_McAllister3yPlanned obsolescence alone doesn't explain the change over time of this phenomenon. It's a static explanation, one which applies equally well to every era, unless something more is said. So the question becomes, Why are manufacturers planning for sooner obsolescence now than they did in the past? Likewise, "worse materials cost less" is always true. It's a static fact, so it can't explain the observed dynamic phenomenon by itself. Or, at least, you need to add some additional data, like, "materials are available now that are worse than what used to be available". That might explain something. It would be another example of things being globally better in a perverse sense (more options = better).

Globally better means locally worse

by Tyrrell_McAllister 1 min read22nd Mar 201719 comments

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Home appliances, such as washing machines, are apparently much less durable now than they were decades ago. [ETA: Thanks to commenters for providing lots of reasons to doubt this claim (especially from here and here).]

Perhaps this is a kind of mirror image of "cost disease". In many sectors (education, medicine), we pay much more now for a product that is no better than what we got decades ago at a far lower cost, even accounting for inflation. It takes more money to buy the same level of quality. Scott Alexander (Yvain) argues that the cause of cost disease is a mystery. There are several plausible accounts, but they don't cover all the cases in a satisfying way. (See the link for more on the mystery of cost disease.)

Now, what if the mysterious cause of cost disease were to set to work in a sector where price can't go up, for whatever reason? Then you would expect quality to take a nosedive. If price per unit quality goes up, but total price can't go up, then quality must go down. So maybe the mystery of crappy appliances is just cost disease in another guise.

In the spirit of inadequate accounts of cost disease, I offer this inadequate account of crappy appliances:

As things get better globally, they get worse locally.

Global goodness provides a buffer against local badness. This makes greater local badness tolerable. That is, the cheapest tolerable thing gets worse. Thus, worse and worse things dominate locally as things get better globally.

This principle applies in at least two ways to washing machines:

Greater global wealth: Consumers have more money, so they can afford to replace washing machines more frequently. Thus, manufacturers can sell machines that require frequent replacement.

Manufacturers couldn't get away with this if people were poorer and could buy only one machine every few decades. If you're poor, you prioritize durability more. In the aggregate, the market will reward durability more. But a rich market accepts less durability.

Better materials science: Globally, materials science has improved. Hence, at the local level, manufacturers can get away with making worse materials.

Rich people might tolerate a washer that lasts 3 years, give or take. But even they don't want a washer that breaks in one month. If you build washers, you need to be sure that nearly every single one lasts a full month, at least. But, with poor materials science, you have to overshoot by a lot to ensure of that. Maybe you have to aim for a mean duration of decades to guarantee that the minimum duration doesn't fall below one month. On the other hand, with better materials science, you can get the distribution of duration to cluster tightly around 3 years. You still have very few washers lasting only one month, but the vast majority of your washers are far less durable than they used to be.

Afterthought

Maybe this is just Nassim Taleb's notion of antifragility. I haven't read the book, but I gather that the idea is that individuals grow stronger in environments that contain more stressors (within limits). Conversely, if you take away the stressors (i.e., make the environment globally better), then you get more fragile individuals (i.e., things are locally worse).

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