Friday, January 25, 2019

Observations on Mortality Upon Purchasing Light Bulbs

I went light bulb shopping the other day for the first time in a long time. After considerable pondering about the vast array of technological lighting wonders, I purchased four 75 watt LED bulbs for about the same price as I used to pay for 20 incandescent bulbs. What convinced me to make this technological leap of faith was that the box cover of the LED bulbs said they should last 22 years. Yes, 22 years.

I grew up during the grand age of planned obsolescence. First implemented in the automobile industry, Chevrolet redesigned its 1923 model to attract customers even though the technology of the vehicle itself remained the same. Model changes in the 50s are drastic examples of this concept: consider the 1956, 1959, 1963 Chevrolet models. In the 1930s, Bernard London, proposed industries make goods that wouldn’t last very long, so customers would have to purchase the product again, and again, and again as a way for consumers to bring the country out of the Depression.

In my lifetime, I have thrown away many products which outlived their usefulness and were too expensive or impossible to repair. For example, battery powered drills whose batteries cost more than or almost as much as a new drill, so I went ahead bought a new drill. More than once. Disposable cameras turned out to be a short-lived phenomenon although I may still have one or more in a drawer somewhere waiting to be developed. The digital camera revolution pretty much did them in.

And consider Moore’s Law in electronics, the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every two years, first noted by Gordon Moore, CEO of Intel, in 1965. Since then, advances in micro processing, personal computers, even digital cameras, have roughly tracked this prediction although the rate of increase has slowed in recent years. A state-of-the-art computer purchased today may continue as state of the art for 3 or 4 years or even longer with upgradable parts.

Televisions, though, demonstrated a period of reverse planned obsolescence. I used to pray that my big 32” cathode ray tube television would die. For many years I prayed. It kept working for at least 15 years. The thing weighed about 100 lbs. and was the size of a stove. And would not die. I wanted a new generation flat screen tv, but it kept going and going and going, like the Energizer bunny, but that’s a whole other topic. I eventually just abandoned it and upgraded to a new flat screen tv when I moved. Now there are a bunch of new generations of flat screen tv: LCD, digital, HD, 3D, LED, OLED, Ultra HD/4K. My “new” one is a 40” LED HD-TV found on a clearance sale of "last year's model" two years ago. The sales person predicted it would last up to 10 years.

But back to planned obsolescence: the official Social Security Actuarial Life Table published the office of the Chief Actuary of the Social Security Administration gives life expectancy for a 68 year old man, me, as 15.68 years. This is less than the life expectancy of the light bulbs I just purchased. As one friend suggested, I can bequeath the light bulbs to my son.