Developments - 11.06.2018

Is the Shortening of Technology Lifespans a Problem?

Technology lifespans aren’t the problem... We are.

Datum Alloys
Ben Scott

Are the lifespans of personal electronics getting shorter?

This is an interesting question that I hear quite often in online comments, blogs, and when a developer announces a new product every year.

The answer is the famous “it depends.”

It depends on the product, the segment, the country. We’re all acutely aware, (and many people more so than others) that the devices we buy are high-volume, short life-cycle products. People want to trade-in their phone or tablet every one or two years, and that creates a lot of waste. One of the challenges I’ve seen, and that we’ve all experienced, is that not just the hardware but the software get more advanced.

The trouble with the old devices is that your phone might be just 6 months old and suddenly there is a software update and now your phone is super slow, and infinitely more frustrating to use.

So there is competition at the cutting edge of handheld devices, that’s one segment.

Another segment, for example, where things are fast, the life cycles are short, and doesn’t get much coverage, is children’s toys. A lot of parents will just give their toys to someone else, so really it has many short life cycles. It’s easy to overlook that many children’s toys have electronics that are hazardous to people and the environment. We know it’s not a sustainable proposition to keep using and chucking these products in the landfill. Recycling electronics is becoming ever more valuable, semiconductors have other uses, along with gold, solder, copper.

Sustainability and prices are interdependent.

This is the bad part of the worst form of consumerism: trading up a perfectly fine smartphone or tablet, or other product every six months for something slightly faster, slightly thinner, or a different color.

I fall into that group.

But what happens to that old device? Most likely it goes in the bin after sitting around the house for a few months before going to the landfill.

It’s not the electronics themselves that aren’t working, it’s the vogue of demanding faster and better products. Because we have a larger disposable income, the cost of trading up is comparatively small for most people. And even those who can’t afford it sign long-term contracts to facilitate their upgrade. There is innovation behind this, but no matter what, all consumer devices end up as waste at some point in time.

The way I see it, if we can make as much of any given device recyclable as possible, we can push off for longer and longer periods when it finally ends up in the bin.

Your phone is no different than the single use plastic your food arrives in at the supermarket, which like plastic straws, is a hot topic today. All the single-use plastic is waste, harmful, and a squandering of resources. But actually the consumer devices we buy are the exactly the same because they are single-use, maybe lasting for a couple years, but at the end it all goes in the same bin.

Washing machines and home appliances can last ten to twenty years in some cases. My last dishwasher lasted fifteen years. Personally I’m OK with that fact, and compared to everything else I own, that seems like an impressive lifespan. But at a global point of view, with seven billion people consuming products every day, it does raise sustainability questions. Fifteen years is not even a blink of an eye for the planet. It makes no difference. We need to get better.

This is where governments can lend a helping hand by nudging. Dick Thaler, the recent Nobel prize winner, wrote about this in his book Nudge, and subsequently the UK’s Cameron Government set up a “nudge unit.”

Values change.

We are, as nations and consumers, becoming more mindful of our impact on the planet, and that creates new industries and new narratives. Once that value is created, and people understand that value, attitudes and behaviors change as well. When behaviors change, then companies change to meet them.

This includes product life cycles: it comes down to the values of society. At a consumer level, myself included, when we decide that buying a phone every year is acceptable, that’s a value that drives the development of technology.

But when we stand back and ask ourselves, “is it really acceptable, is it really necessary?” That’s when technology begins to change. These are first-world problems to be sure, but they are no less serious or real.

For example, the batteries that now power our devices no longer use raw materials sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is due to the consumer attention paid to the topic, and voting with their wallets for the products that are more ethically sourced. Consumers don’t want to be involved with unethical manufacturing, it’s only a matter of time before they don’t want to be involved with unethical disposal as well.

This is where capitalism and good business work well because the market decides where we go, and we say if you’re not going to behave a certain way we’re not going to buy from you.

As different as they are, we can see the same changes happening in the automobile industry, that we want to see in the personal electronics industry. We see the new dialogue about electric cars, the power they consume, their longevity. When you buy a car that is 70 years old, you expect it to work, the same is happening with electric cars, so how can we have an iPhone that works in ten, fifteen, or twenty years?

Hard to imagine, isn’t it?

We are the ones that drive change, and if we want change we need to make that plain in what we buy. That is the purpose of business: to create customers.

Businesses create customers through satisfaction.

What we buy is a signal for what satisfies us.

You want change? Start with yourself, look at where you are and then where you want to be. Ask yourself, “do I need a phone with X processing power?” And when you look at it, objectively it’s really just text messages and phone calls, so why should I spend so much on a phone?

I don’t, but I do.