Hardware Reduction vs Planned Obsolescence

Development in technology boggles the mind, leaving us guessing at the future state of technology in 10, 20, or 50 years. From an environmental perspective my favorite effect of such developments is the ability of one product (ex. the smartphone) to replace numerous other products. The modern smartphone replaces a GPS unit, point-and-shoot camera, MP3 player, sound recorder, video recorder, planner, stopwatch, notepad, calculator, rolodex, thermometer, game console, pedometer, newspaper, file cabinet, remote control and other devices. The smartphone not only performs the varied rolls of these numerous gadgets, but it often does so better. This saves immeasurable amounts of natural resources by eliminating the need to excavate the natural resources used to manufacture the other products, the need to dispose of them at their end-of-life-cycle (reduced waste), and it saves paper by reducing printing.

Yet much of the benefit described above is at risk of sabotage by the dangers of planned obsolescence. Apple develops a newer smartphone model with a sharper screen and a more appealing physique, (see here for a comparison of the iPhone 4, 4s, and 5) thereby creating consumer demand for a product that offers the consumer little more than does the product he or she might already own. Apple plans for this. In 2001 the first iPod was introduced with a black and white screen, and almost four years later the screen was colorized—maybe my assumption is wrong, but this seems calculated. I have a hard time believing that from 2001-2004 the multinational conglomerate and industry tech leader Apple, Inc. lacked the capacity to add color to its miniature iPod screens.

Again, I might be wrong about the iPod, but there really is little difference between Apple’s most recent two iPhones, the 4s and the 5. Why did Apple create the 5? Perhaps they needed to transition to the 6 and 7. Perhaps Apple will start identifying its phones by something other than numbers—who wouldn’t want the iPhone A or B?

Apple is not the only culprit of planned obsolescence, and they might not even be among the worst—I don’t really know and it doesn’t really matter. The issue of planned obsolescence occurs industry-wide, as major electronics manufacturers sell newer product models at ever-increasing speeds. This greatly magnifies the adverse environmental impacts of technology by increasing the requirements for natural resources (extracted and used in production) as well as the electronic waste produced upon the products’ disposal.

Industry is not solely at fault. Does each of us really need an iPhone, iPad, and iPad mini? What other size screen will we need in the future? Should the Apple product be smaller or should we start demanding larger pockets? How long will the right size remain the right size, and what will be the next size? As environmentally-concerned consumers we need to examine our purchases and begin consuming more wisely (and potentially purchasing less). Pursuing the opposite path—that of blind consumption—is more likely to create unsatisfied desire than it is to satisfy actual needs. Moving on to Apple and its peers…

Technology has the amazing power to change the world. The engineers who develop technology and the business folks who work with them therefore have great power in crafting the impacts of technology. Whoever makes a decision about product development is primarily guided by profits—profits from satisfied consumers and sold merchandise; profits affecting the bottom line; and profits returned to shareholders. Consequentially, the environmental impacts of these same decisions are neglected. Yet technology companies can positively impact the environment with their products. Check out this video of a futuristic iPhone model—imagine a smart phone that could replace desktops, laptops, tablets, keyboards, monitors, and televisions. This could mean so much for the environment—but its meaning will be heavily diminished if consumers feel compelled to discard their smartphone every six to twelve months. I therefore urge industry to do good by technology and replace the archaic instruments of the past with durable new products that are made to last. Perhaps they can have replaceable parts or be more easily upgraded—I am not the tech genius—but whatever the solution is, it should address this planned (and perhaps unplanned) obsolescence.

Additional Resources

For more information on planned obsolescence check out The Story of Stuff’s entertainingly informative video on The Story of Electronics. It depicts the issues and provides solutions.

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About Emerging Environments

Thoughts about environmental policy, sustainability, cancer, and more.
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