I’m not good with goodbyes. Certainly not with dear, familiar things such as my old laptop. I hammered out most of my column pieces on that silver, 13-inch Sony Vaio. I clung to it even when it was no longer trustworthy and started to stutter and slow, or even shut down.

I hoped to get it fixed. My husband railed against it. In his firm, a large multinational, laptops are routinely changed after a few years, as that is their expected lifespan.

I soldiered on with my Sony for six years. Then one recent morning, I stupidly left it in a bag behind my mother’s car and she unknowingly reversed onto the bag. And that finally ended the Sony saga.

I have, reluctantly, come to terms with the 21st century reality of electrical goods. Don’t get too fond of your goods. They’re not built to last, but to throw away.

Repairs may be too costly, difficult or just impossible. I’ve had to dump a number of electronic goods – cameras, voice recorders, electric toothbrushes. Cheap children’s toys are the worst.

I grew up with a very different reality. My parents had the same car, their trusty maroon Peugeot, in the 1970s and throughout much of my childhood, as family photos show. Of course, we had the same television and (one) dial phone for yonks.

Technology is moving so fast now and I’ve lagged behind. I held onto cassette tapes far too long. Some years back, I bought a good tape player – probably one of the last of its kind to be sold in Kuala Lumpur! I was crestfallen when it stopped working recently. I knew what that meant: throwing out my tapes.

I took the machine back to the manufacturer but was told parts are no longer available.

I then found a repair service company online, but when I called the repairman, he told me solemnly that the repair would probably cost me a bomb. The parts for cassettes don’t come cheap, or easy.

When it comes to dinosaur technology going extinct, I get it. Move on. When it comes to phones and software, we have no choice but to change. Constantly. The technology is speeding ahead.

But with electrical goods, companies are sometimes deliberately designing goods to go bust after a few years, aiming for two or three sales a decade. It’s a widespread business policy known as “planned obsolescence”.

“White goods” – electronic goods that are often white (or used to be, traditionally), such as fridges – don’t last so long now. A washing machine that might have lasted 10 years or so in the 1980s might only last three years today. My sister actually bought an old, British-made Kenwood mixer because of the brand’s legendary durability.

Manufacturers point out that while durability has dropped, so has the price. Cheaply-made goods, using low-quality materials, aren’t meant to last.

Manufacturers even obstruct repairs; they are quite sneaky about it, limiting access to parts or using digital software locks or secret codes that block any tinkering. A lot more could be fixed, but companies want you to replace, not repair their products.

Can you believe, there’s a lightbulb that has been burning for 100 years in a fire station in Livermore, California? The “centennial bulb” is recorded in the Guinness Book Of Records (you can watch a live stream of the bulb at centennialbulb.org/cam.htm.) This, folks, is the kind of bulb made before manufacturers decided to make bulbs go bust after 1,000 hours or so.

The notion of deliberate obsolescence to rake up profits is obscene. It costs the earth energy and resources to produce these goods, plus they then fill up landfills and may leech toxins into the ground. And of course, it drains us financially.

But here’s the good news. People are beginning to fight back.

In France, a new law forces manufacturers to inform consumers how long their products will last, and how long spare parts will be available – or else risk a huge fine. French manufacturers will also have to repair or replace defective products from two years after the purchase date. Oh, I love the French sometimes!

Consumers are also fighting back with the Internet. YouTube videos and online forums help instruct people on repairs, which can sometimes be done for a fraction of what a company may charge.

My husband fixed my phone once with the help of a YouTube video, at virtually no cost to us. People are also posting secret codes online to allow repairs.

There is also an open source electronics platform, Arduino, which also may change things. The software and hardware is easy to use, inexpensive, and has helped power thousands of projects, and built a community of users worldwide.

Now that’s more like the kind of 21st century electronic reality I like.


Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.