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Upgrading ourselves towards obsolescence

James Massola |  02 April 2007

Upgrading ourselves towards obsolescence"Modern consumer society is structured so that we are constantly unhappy with what we have. Advertisers make us feel dissatisfied so we keep buying new things, which is good for the economy but bad for the environment. Consumers collaborate in this wastefulness by being fooled into thinking that they can fill the inner void by consuming." - Clive Hamilton

About a month ago I got a new mobile phone. I like to imagine that I am not a 'phone person' – I won’t answer a phone when in the middle of a conversation, I relish putting it on silent, and I occasionally still leave the house without it. However like most people these days, I’m fairly beholden to it.

This new phone had all the bells, whistles, and things I-never-knew-I-needed-but-now-would-find-changed-my-life. To wit, an address book big enough to hold the population of Panama (3.19million according to the CIA), colour screen the size of the Jumbotron, 6 air bags, 8 cup holders, flux capacitor…you get the idea.

I was amazed at all of these features. A call to Clive Hamilton at the Australia Institute revealed I was not the only person wondering "why all the techno-wizardry?"

As Mr Hamilton put it, "Until companies start thinking in terms of what might be a more environmentally sound approach to building new products, I fear we will be stuck with this interminable ‘upgrade or be obsolete’ mentality."

When it came time to charge the phone, I discovered my old charger did not fit my new phone. Imagine my surprise. Both were made by Nokia, one was two years older than the other. Thankfully there was a new charger in the box.

I examined the point of the new charger. It was around one-one-millionth of a percent smaller than the old charger, thus utterly unusable. Why?

I’m not trying to single out Nokia. The phone could have been a Sony Ericsson, a Motorola or a Samsung. Mobile phone makers have a taken a lot of heat in recent years from consumer groups and governments about being environmentally responsible.

A call to Nokia, followed by some browsing on the homepage, revealed a plethora of 'corporate responsibility' type statements, environmental reports, information on how to recycle one’s old phone and the like. But what about my charger? In one fell swoop, the ten chargers I had accumulated, inherited, and purchased over the years were rendered useless lumps of plastic.

Upgrading ourselves towards obsolescenceThis got me thinking about other technology companies. Apple is the darling of our new media age. Its iPod, music store, 'digital lifestyle solutions' and computers are the sine qua non of chic designers, pedantic publishers and posing pusses everywhere. But are they enviro-friendly?

After a series of phone calls, I received an email from John Marx, a public relations executive at Apple, in response to my questions about recycling older computers, long-term disposal of discontinued products, and how Apple could justify releasing products that were not 'backwards compatible.'

His reply, in part;

"On a global basis Apple has a strong environmental track record and has led the industry in restricting and banning toxic substances such as mercury, cadmium and hexavalent chromium, as well as many BFRs (brominated flame retardants). We have also completely eliminated CRT monitors, which contain lead, from our product line. Apple desktops, notebooks and displays each score best-in-class in the new EPA ranking system EPEAT, which uses international standards set by IEEE. Further details on EPEAT and Apple offerings can be found here."

This did not really answer my questions. While John, and Apple were making the right noises, I felt they were sidestepping. A follow up email elicited no response. Behind the terminology and the policies John had not told me much. The absence of comment on the ‘upgrade cycle’, or forced obsolescence by another name, bothered me in particular

When Apple released its fifth generation iPod, it switched the 'plug-in bit' from the top to the bottom. By doing this, just about every aftermarket accessory made for older iPods was pushed into obsolescence.
According to the well-known technology website, CNET.com.au, $1.05billion was spent on accessories for the iPod last year – and that excludes internet sales. One-man-and-dog operations have grown exponentially on the back of this expansion. Accessories are big business. By changing the design, Apple delivered an instant cash cow to the third party manufacturers who support it.

So how is one to break the cycle of forced obsolescence if the financial benefits are so strong for manufactures and retailers? Consumer goods and electronics are no longer made to last. For manufacturers, the ideal consumer is the individual who must have the ‘latest-and-greatest’ every year or two (or perhaps even sooner). But what if we resist?

If you can, step outside the 'upgrade cycle', think about what you are purchasing, and if you really need it. We as a society need to stop and think about all the landfills and waste dumps which are soon to hold our broken-down electronic paraphernalia.



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Submitted comments

So true. What's so disappointing is that Nokia, for the past decade, have been wonderfully consistent with their phone chargers, unlike Ericsson and the like, who have a different charger for every model. My trusty old (now obsolete) charger, which had seen me through four old nokias, has now been overtaken by one annoyingly only slighter slimmer to fit the new model I have. Lousy upgrade cycle!

aurora lowe 03 April 2007

Amen!! great article James, thank you.
All the system upgrades to Windows in the last ten years have been completely unnecessary - the gradual rollout of features Apple had all along has made Bill Gates a surprisingly effective redistributor of the world's income, but the costs to industry are incalculable.
It is comparatively easy to train kids to realise that newer is not necessarily 'gooder' (Black Books) - just take them to the tip.

Genevieve Tucker 03 April 2007

Good article , I've had my mobile for over 5 years and the hands free kit charges the phone ,am I heading in the right direction ? Haven't suscribed to the ipod generation yet

Michael Bell 03 April 2007

As a professional I cannot understand why people want to upgrade equipment which works perfectly satisfactorily. If it works, why "fix" it? besides, most upgrades have bugs to start with. Besides, most "upgrades" require rearning hew procedures - why bother? Listen to my "Ned Ludd" session every first wednesday in the month on Radio 3 CR 855 KHz on the Anarchist session for commonsense technology.

Gerry Harant 04 April 2007

Let us live simply
so that others might simply live.

Gerry McCormack 04 April 2007

I have heard that in Japan under law it is mandated that manufacturers are required to take back superseded goods and that they are responsible for the recycling of them.
Could you confirm that this is the case and if so it seems to be a very constructive approach to the issue you are raising while the issue of overconsumption is being debated ?

Noel Will 04 April 2007

I really enjoyed this article. Nice work. I am totally devoted to my technological toys, but i do think we need to think more about how we impact on the environment with our choices.

jonathan 04 April 2007

Very inspiring thoughts.
Imagine i.e. an old Atari (or Apple, Amiga), built 15 years ago, but still perfectly fit for burning CDs, audio processing, programming eproms, email traffic, word processing & printing...
...but millions of them were dumped in landpits since then.

Lars Baumstark 13 April 2007

So true, indeed. The only way things will change is if these companies retool their business model to one that promotes new, existing virtues of a long-life brand item. Until that is done, we will have a continuation of the false 'new-for-the-sake-of-new' shoved on us each year in order to suck in the weak among us to ditch last years model for this years. Sad, isn't it?

For the record, my last cell phone lasted 8 years, my Mac PowerBook lasted 8 years and a current PowerBook 3400c from 1997 is still going strong and being used along with my Newton 2000.

Sprocket999 13 April 2007

Your statement that Apple moved the connector for add-on components to the bottom of the iPod in the Fifth generation products is at best misleading.

All iPods since the second generation models have had a Dock connector on the base of the unit. This has always been available for third parties to use.

The 2nd through 4th-generation models also had a small connector next to the headphone outlet on the top of the iPod to support a remote control unit attached to the headphone cable.

Some third parties manufactured devices which used this additional connector, even though Apple did not support its use and recommended that the dock connector be used. It is incorrect to say that "most" add-on products used the remote control socket, they did not. Most products used the dock connector as recommended by Apple.

In the 5th generation iPods Apple removed the headphone remote control socket. This of course means that the products that used that socket no longer work with the 5th generation iPod. All products designed for the dock connector continue to work just fine.

So the only products affected are those that used the remote control connector - which Apple explicitly did not support. The blame for the issues should be placed squarely at the feet of these add-on manufacturers, not Apple.

Rob Keniger 10 May 2007

Hello.......James, are you awake? How can you expect to convince the public to stop purchasing the latest devices with so little resources to stop the racing masses? Would it not be more productive to build up the market for used devices and prolong the life of the products by assisting the movement of the devices from person to person? Why assume that all the devices will wind up in the landfill within a year?
If you build up the re-use market, and innovate to make them last longer, then you can slow down the pace of people rushing out to buy the latest and greatest. I think we should work to find ways to lenghten the useable life of these various products. (Can't we also think about lengthening the life of automobiles, too? They weigh more than all of the electronics they're owner purchases during the lifetime of a vehicle.)

Tom Pardee 11 May 2007

James- I couldnt comment on your other article elsewhere, but frankly, Apple doesnt have a record for having purposefully short lifespans, au contraire, Mac users have extolled for years that an Apple computer's (useful) life-expectancy is easily twice that of a Windows PC.

Consumer electronics on the other hand is a different game and it is the consumer that decides that they want to upgrade; their current iPod and accessories do not 'just stop working' overnight.

Here you DO target the consumer's role correctly (techno-lust) but on the other site, you unduly vilify Apple without knowing their track record.

Vaughn 11 May 2007

A little more facts would make your case have some weight but inflammatory bs only weakens your already weak points.

"A case in point is the iPod. When Apple released their fifth generation iPod, they made a small change that had big implications. Formerly, most after market accessories plugged into the top of the iPod. (This is just not accurate. most of the previous generations accessories used the bottom for the majority of the accessories sold.) For generation five, all accessories had to plug into the bottom of the iPod. (Not true)

This may not seem like a big change. It was. In one fell swoop, anyone who bought a new iPod (perhaps because the difficult-to-replace battery had expired) (Most iPod replacements are due to upgrades not failures and anyone with access to the internet knows there are a multitude of methods to replace the battery if failed. It takes less than 5 minutes to change an iPod battery) was unable to use their old accessories. (Most accessories that plugged into the top simply plugged into the headphone jack and still work on Gen5 iPods as well.) Before you ask "so what?" bear in mind that, according to CNET.com.au, the accessories market for iPods was worth $1.05 billion dollars last year, excluding web sales. That’s quite a (re-invigorated) cash cow.

In other words, Jobs’ statement is a pleasant piece of iSpin. Little is said in the statement about Apple’s philosophy of locking people into their "ecosystem." Apple may well be on the way to being the best recyclers in the world. However, building products with limited lifespans and severely limiting "backwards compatability" is counter-intuitive to idea of recycling and being environmentally responsible.

(Did you ignore the following part of the apples greener statement?)

"All the e-waste we collect in North America is processed in the U.S., and nothing is shipped overseas for disposal. We carefully review “environmental fate” submissions from each vendor, so we know how raw materials are handled at the end of the recycling process. We hold our recycling vendors to the highest environmental standards in the industry. In addition to annual compliance audits, we also review the performance of their downstream vendors. They must comply with all applicable health and safety laws, and we do not allow the use of prison labor at any stage of the recycling process.

Producers must also take responsibility for the design and material choices that create the product in the first place. It is these choices that fundamentally determine the weight and recycling value of material waste at the end of a product’s life. The iMac is a world-class example of material efficiency, having shed 60% of its weight since its debut in 1998. Our designs use aircraft-grade aluminum, stainless steel and high-grade plastics that are in high demand from recyclers, who recover and resell these raw materials for use in other types of products. Few of our competitors do the same."

Having Al Gore on board as the token eco-warrior board member will only go so far. What is needed is systemic change, and a new manufacturing philosophy. Apple is not the only company that builds obsolescence into its products. (I and most other apple users are able to pass our products on to new owners as we upgrade to the fast changing technology while other PCs end up on the garbage heap.)

But for a company that prides itself on being forward-thinking, its environmental and manufacturing policies are quite backwards.

Your article is mostly uninformed cheap shot rubbish. Who's statement is a pleasant piece of spin?

Cliff Pitcher

Cliff Pitcher 11 May 2007

Agreed. The upgrade mentality is also making landfills out of humans, unwilling to use the power of self-restraint. This is coupled with an industry that purposely makes machines to not last more than 3-5 years.

David 06 July 2007

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