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Upgrading ourselves towards obsolescence

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.

James MassolaJames Massola is the former Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is now a journalist with the Canberra Times. He also holds a Masters in International Relations.



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