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Made to Break

I’d like to begin by apologizing for the several-week long hiatus on the blog. Problems with my left eye have made it difficult to get any writing done. In my last entry, we examined the work of Dr. Albert Bartlett and the uncomfortable truth that our diminishing hydrocarbon resources and growing economy present a situation that cannot be maintained in the long term. Today, I’d like to look at one aspect of our social order that has to change if we’re going to transition to a sustainable economy.

I’m sure many of your are familiar with the term “planned obsolescence.” If you aren’t, let me offer some basic information.

Basically, “planned obsolescence” means deliberately designing a product to fail after a certain period of time. For instance, even though it is technically possible to produce a light bulb that doesn’t burn out from over a century of constant use, most of the bulbs that we use in our lamps and light fixtures die after a year or two. Maybe three. Over a century? That can’t be right, can it?

Yup… It can.

Of course, one of the biggest offenders where planned obsolescence is concerned is Apple. In fact, you can’t even Google the phrase without finding yourself buried in an avalanche of articles detailing Apple’s misbehaviour. One of their more recent offenses involves redesigning the iPhone 5 to be incompatible with old accessories, thus forcing you to repurchase accessories that you already own.

Let’s not forget the fact that they motivate repeat purchases of their iPods and iPhones by deliberately making the batteries irreplaceable. When your battery dies out – as all batteries inevitably do – you can either pay Apple $86 to replace it or you or suck it up and buy a new iPhone.

By contrast, here’s what it costs to purchase a new battery for your BlackBerry.

Replacing said battery is as easy as taking off the cover and popping the new battery into place, thus extending the life of the phone.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to waggle my finger in Apple’s direction. They’re evil; we know it. And frankly, naming themselves after the forbidden fruit that looks so tempting in the beginning but brings only misery in the long run couldn’t have been more poetic.

No, this isn’t about attacking Apple.

My purpose here is to establish the fact that planned obsolescence is a very real, very problematic business strategy that has been employed many different industries over the last century. This isn’t just a feature of the tech industry. You’ll find planned obsolescence in everything from automotive design to fashion. But it stimulates demand, right? So… why is this a problem?

Resources, resources, resources.

I’m going to repost a link to Professor Bartlett’s talk on the exponential function because I cannot stress the importance of understanding the horrible consequences to unmitigated growth.

Ask yourself this one question: what happens to all those cell phones, iPods and and various gadgets when we’re done with them? I ask myself that question frequently. I’ve got a drawer full of old phones and knickknacks because I can’t stand the thought of them ending up in a landfill. Have you ever heard the term “disposable society? That’s a particularly apt description of how we treat consumer electronics. According to the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency. “In 2009, discarded TVs, computers, peripherals (including printers, scanners and fax machines) mice, keyboards, and cell phones totaled about 2.37 million tonnes.”

Disregarding the environmental concerns – which are severe; discarded electronics often result in heavy metals finding their way into bodies of water – these abandoned gadgets represent lost resources. Hydrocarbons are consumed in the production of plastic, both in terms of the energy expended and the actual composition of the material. So, how much reusable plastic is currently sitting in landfills? How many new iPhones could we make by reusing the casings from old one?

Are they really so different in size and shape that we couldn’t reuse the casings?

I’m beginning to agree with Noam Chomsky when he says that terminology in our political landscape means the opposite of what it’s supposed to mean. When the so-called experts say our economic model is efficient, what they really mean is that it’s well-oiled machine that transforms natural resources into trash. This is the problem with cyclical consumption; it is inherently wasteful and destructive.

And it’s also the only way to stimulate demand.

“But wait,” I hear you say, “Rich, before you slam the concept of cyclic consumption, isn’t technology constantly evolving? Won’t people want to get their hands on the latest models?” I’m glad you asked. Because, in a sense, you’re right; technology is constantly improving, and we shouldn’t stifle those advancements. We can look at this problem from two perspectives.

Number 1:

Yes, technology is constantly improving, but do those incremental improvements necessarily line up with marketing cycles? Or to put it simply: are the cell phones lining the shelves this Christmas Season really that much of an improvement over the ones that lined the shelves last Christmas Season?

Let’s look at some specs.

Last year, Apple released the iPhone 5 to much fanfare. This year, they followed it up with the 5S. Here’s a comparison of the hardware.

iPhone 5

CPU: 1.3 GHz Dual Core

GPU: PowerVR SGX543MP3

System on Chip: Apple A6.

Memory: 1GB LPDDR-2

Display: 4 inch (100mm) diagonal.

iPhone 5S

CPU: 1.3 GHz Dual Core

GPU: PowerVR G6430

System on Chip: Apple A7

Memory: 1GB LPDDR-3

Display: 4 inch (100mm) diagonal.

What do these differences mean? Both versions of the phone use the same CPU; so there is no difference in terms of computations per second. Regarding the GPU (Graphics, Processing Unit), the manufacturers claim that the G64 series differs from the SGX series in terms of chip architecture. Whether this produces any measurable improvement in graphics quality is hard to say.

The key difference between the Apple A6 system and the A7 is that the former is 32bit while the latter is 64bit. What exactly does that mean? To put it simply, think of the “bits” as slots that the processor can use to hold information. Having more slots means the processor can work with more information at the same time. However, the down side to 64 bit architecture is that having more slots means the computer has to use up more memory in keeping track of which piece of information gets stored in which slot.

Does that improve the user experience in any way?

In my experience, I don’t notice any improvement in performance.

Both phones have the same amount of RAM – the difference between DDR2 and DDR3 is negligible – and both use the same type of display. If the 5S is indeed an improvement over the iPhone 5, it is so in only the most technical sense of the word. The user’s experience is not likely to change in any significant way. If you want to see the specs on these phones for yourself, you need only check the Wikipedia entries for each model.

This brings us to our next question. Was it worth it? Was the marginal – perhaps imperceptible – improvement in performance worth the resources expended to create an entire new fleet of phones? That question is too big for me to answer on this blog. But it’s a question that we need to keep in mind when setting economic policy.

I’m sure some of you remember that I mentioned a second way of looking at the issue of technological advancement in a world of resource conservation. That second perspective is as follows: imagine, if you will, a world where electronic devices – and all other products – were designed to be as durable as possible, to last as long as possible.

What would we do when it came time to upgrade?

Imagine walking into your local Apple Store with your iPhone 4 and saying, “Hi, I’d like to purchase the iPhone 5.” Once money has changed hands, the cashier takes your phone to a technician in the back who tells you that it will be ready for pick-up in about half an hour.

She unscrews the case, removes the old iPhone 4 circuit board and installs a new iPhone 5 board in its place. The case is preserved, thus eliminating the need to manufacture a new one, the battery is preserved and materials are conserved. You get your phone back with a faster, more powerful processor and new software.

The old circuit board is sent back to the factory so that the precious metals can be extracted and reused. Your battery is designed to hold as many charges as possible. When it dies, it can be easily replaced and sent back to the factory. If the screen cracks, the working circuitry inside the phone is installed in a new case. In engineering terms, this is called Modularity: replacing only the part that is broken or in need of an upgrade. Designing products so that individual parts can be removed and replaced as needed.

There’s only one problem: it’s not profitable under our current model.

At its core, planned obsolescence is deliberate inefficiency. If we’re going to transition to a sustainable economy, deliberate inefficiency has to go. Remember that our current system that relies on perpetual growth will come to an end. It’s inevitable. This is not politics; this is natural law. We don’t get a choice in the matter. Dealing with these realities requires a new way of thinking about economics – not Capitalism, not Socialism. Both of those philosophies are dependent on growth.

_______________

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1 Comment

  1. Alyssa says:

    My IPod touch has a broken button – it’s stuck so I can’t turn it on or off and the only way to get the screen to light up is to plug it in- I went to Apple and apparently this problem happens all the time but I can get a new one for 75 $$ I don’t want a new one I want mine fixed! The rest works ! They wanted me to upgrade :s

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