the iPhone: gone tomorrow

CBC radio had a great interview on the environmental impacts of the iPhone. It featured Heather Rogers’s book, Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage. The author provided an extensive look at the likely environmental costs of the iPhone and the way in which those costs are obscured by marketing and design. Below are some highlights.

What’s the environmental impact? Rogers says that the first impact occurs with industrial production in the third world, which generally lack good labour or environmental laws. Then, of course comes transportation costs and packaging costs. Apple, at least, has been forced (here too) to reduce its overwhelming amount of product packaging and invest in recycled materials. In the interview, Rogers doesn’t mention the rest of the lifecycle because this is what we normally think of as e-waste–the energy usage and disposal costs (which likely take us back to the third world but not necessarily).

Her larger point is that much of the environmental problems are embedded in metaphor and marketing. “Apple’s sleek design doesn’t tell you where it came from OR where it goes to.” The last thing companies like Apple want you to know is the technology’s planned obsolescence, its toxicity.

Indeed, according to Rogers, Apple products’ image is one of cleanliness. Apple focuses on sleek design, compactness, and a lack of clutter in its user interface (who knew that user friendliness could suggest environmentalism?). Its white colour is no accident. Of course, we can go back further than Apple designs. Such was the reasoning for white kitchen appliances–because they appeared clean and that implied germ free (see S Nickles. 2002. “Preserving Women”: Refrigerator Design as Social Process in the 1930 s. Technology and Culture. I wonder, does that mean that the iPhone will be virus free? Hmmm).

Back to Rogers–the company also evokes an environmental sensibility. They care about such things; they cultivate environmentalists to purchase and use their products. What they also cultivate is a cultural acceptance of disposability. When a new device is introduced, it becomes acceptable to simply throw it away, even high priced ticket items. It should be astonishing to us that we so casually discard working technology that costs $100s. Rogers contends that the devices are explicitly designed so that they last less time than they could (read–battery life, durability). You could lodge many of these complaints at the consumer electronics industry writ large. What Apple brings to electronics is the idea of fashion obsolescence, which can be added to the pantheon of types of obsolescence (planned and, in a later post, technological, cultural, and adulterous obsolescence).

The CBC piece also features an interview with Steven Levy, author of The Perfect Thing: How the iPod Shuffles Commerce, Culture, and Coolness. He points out that Apple has been “relentless” in bringing out new models that, of course, caused people to throw them out. I think that Levy defends too vigourously Apples’ need to compete (competitive obsolescence?). His point is that constant improvement propels consumption which unfortunately produces the detritus of our electronic lives.

Listen to the whole CBC piece here.

One positive outcome of these innovations that neither interviewee mentioned is that technological convergence (phone, camera, music player) will someday result in fewer devices to throw away. Until that day, we will be bombarded with features that, instead of allowing us to upgrade the software or firmware, force us to buy a new device. That is, if we buy the hype.

Watch Greenpeace’s spoof ad of the Green iPod announcement:

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