A Global Dilemma
One of the core tenets of ecology is that everything is connected. In the biosphere, all plant and animal life is connected and networked in a seamless web across the planet. The human population explosion of the twentieth century has created a number of problems for the co-inhabitants of our planet. Planned obsolescence is a modern business strategy that builds obsolescence into a product in order to limit its life span, effectively making consumers re-purchase the product over and over. A variety of products including, but not limited to, cars, refrigerators, and computers are built to be relatively disposable. This consumerist business strategy is starting to present great risks to the health and well being of the biosphere. Moore’s Law has become a self-fulfilling prophecy for Silicon Valley, and the modern communication ecology has arguably spun itself matrices as complex as the biosphere.
The year 2017 will mark ten years since the introduction of the iPhone by Apple. The constant upgrade cycle of a now global mobile consumer electronics industry is a harbinger for an impending e-waste epidemic. In the last quarter of 2011, the birth rate of iPhones exceeded that of human babies born on this planet.1 Gordon Gow points out that digital technologies have the ability to recombine elements from different sources by utilizing the distribution potential provided by global communications.2 As technology evolves, it builds upon itself––for example: the building of factories can enable the factories to produce the components needed to build more factories that will eventually result in more and more factories. Gow writes that the human use of technology has the ability to “establish a direct feedback loop that leads to accelerated innovation.”3 However, Mark Burch argues that human innovation has entered a stage of over-development where wants have replaced needs resulting in the creation of artificial markets.4 Burch declares that the billions of dollars invested in computer systems and communication devices by middle class Americans amounts to “a head-long plunge by an entire generation into various virtual realities that taken together can only be considered an electronically mediated mass fantasy.”5
The toll of our collective foray with electronic media has littered the landfills with television sets of all shape and sizes. Cell phones are built to last five years, but we only use them until Apple and the like pump out their next generation of gadgets––rendering perfectly good tools obsolete. E-waste is estimated to be as high as 8% of all municipal waste in rich countries.6 Giles Slade notes in Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, that the growing mountain of e-waste contains high levels of permanent biological toxins (PBTs), such as arsenic, lead, and cadmium.7 If the e-waste is burned these pollutants are released into the air, if they are buried, the PBTs will make their way into the ground water. No matter how you look at it, the irresponsible business practice of planned obsolescence is resulting in a compromised biosphere. The solution may be as simple as plugging back into an old-fashioned landline, there are bound to be plenty of options in the thrift shops.
Cole, Jarrett. “Planned Obsolescence: A Global Dilemma.” Winnsox, vol. 1 (2020).