Your computer starts feeling slow, so you get a new one. Your iPod or iAudio is full of music, so you upgrade. Your printer’s ink is too expensive, so you buy a new printer that takes cheaper ink. Your phone is only 3g-capable, so you upgrade for a faster connection. The CDs and DVDs you burned last year mysteriously no longer play in your new player, or they skip. Your entire DVD collection needs to be replaced and upgraded to Blu Ray. You need an ebook reader so you don’t rely on bulky, tree-killing books. Your light bulbs have been deprecated and you need to switch to the eco-friendly fluorescent bulbs. Your harddrive has died. Your tv is outdated. Your car is inefficient. Your coffee machine makes substandard coffee. Your thumbdrive is too slow and occasionally eats your files.
And on top of all that, Mother’s Day is approaching and you need to
buy your mom a new gadget. I know, chill right? But I can’t….
The common thread here is technology, and technology is an important
element in most of our lives, whether in our kitchens, vehicles,
entertainment, or health. “Technology”, of course, is a broad and
generic term referring to any variety of mechanical or electrical
invention. But mostly, people think of technology as any variety of
product from any variety of “tech companies”, and most of us do little
to resist technology because, well, it does make life easier,
convenient, and more enjoyable.
In fact, if you ask most people, technology exists only to better
the quality of our lives. And technology is smart; it shows us a better
way of doing things, a quicker and more efficient way of accomplishing
every day tasks.
Yet, if that’s the case, why does technology itself feel so
short-lived and problematic? Why do computers seem to get old so
quickly? why is it that when you purchase a phone, a new and
remarkably better model comes out the next month? and it’s selling for
less than what you paid for yours?
It’s almost enough to make you suspect that technology is rigged
This might be how the economy works: charge as much as you possibly
can for the newest product and make as much money as people are
willing to fork over, but it’s not how technology is supposed to work.
The vast majority of the people who support and get excited about new
innovations in computing and robotics and physics are not the same as
those selling the technology to consumers, and theirs is not the same
philosophy. In fact, it’s usually the polar opposite.
So how is technology supposed to work?
Technology changes frequently, by its nature. It’s constantly
progressing as it strives to achieve more with fewer resources, less
effort, and better accuracy. But backwards compatibility and
user-upgradeable parts can and should be built into the consumer
market just as it is in real, infrastructural world.
For true technologists, whether they are electrical engineers, systems
administrators, or just hackers sitting at home inventing new ways of
getting things done, the ideal technology is long lasting,
supportable, and never obsolete. Need proof? The same technologies
that ran supercomputers in the 70s is, essentially, the same that runs
the internet today. The same technology that early computers, like
the UNIVAC, is still the basis for modern CPUs now. Good technology
is built to last, to be resilient, and to be independent from cosmetic
design changes; imagine what would happen if the infrastructure
of the phone and data communications in America was run like the
consumer cell phone market; billions of dollars would be spent every
year on total overhauls of all the equipment and the workload required
would shutdown service for months at a time.
Products being sold to consumers, unfortunately, are being sold to not
be upgradeable by the consumer. That is, when you find yourself in a
new printer, it’s not because every part in the printer has gone bad,
but one part has gone bad. But the printer is made of plastic, with
pieces molded together in a non-modular design, with moving parts that
are so cheaply made that they literally are shaking the printer itself
apart; you have little recourse but to purchase an entirely new
printer. Imagine cars built this way; you’d replace them after a few
trips out of town.
Companies like Dell and Sony are starting to build computers the same
way; cheap materials that degrade quickly and encourage people to buy
entirely new machines. Apple, conversely, uses quite a bit of
top-quality material but prevents consumers from upgrading individual
parts – even something as simple as a battery.
This could all be done drastically differently. It’s not a
technological conundrum, it’s a marketing one. Most major parts of
nearly every technological item we purchase could be built with the
intention of it lasting for decades. When important upgrades are
available, such as a faster CPU, or a better graphics card, or a
different protocol for satellite communication, or longer-lasting ink,
or whatever it may be, they can be sold as upgradeable parts.
The models exist already; look at that blender from the ’50s that your
grandmother has in her kitchen, or that old stereo from the ’70s that
your uncle still plays LP’s on. Look at the classic cars that still
run like the day they rolled out of the factory, the phone and data
network that drives most of the country’s information, man-made satellites
circling the planet, supercomputers in universities, professional film
and audio gear that processes the highest fidelity of image and sound
we have, even to this day, achieved. They were built to last. They
were built for sustainability and reliability, and never were they
marketed as frivolous investments that the owner could discard into a
landfill in six months time.
Seriously why? Appliances (like vacuums and stoves) that were built in the 1950s and 1960s are still running better than the ones manufactured in the “2000s”. I understand that companies wanting to keep making profits decided to start making products that broke after 5 years at some point, but wouldn’t it be better to merge our awesome technological advances with the quality that seemed to be so important for the first 100 years or so of the industrial revolution? Wouldn’t you rather pay 5 times as much for something that you could keep using for the rest of your life or that you could sell and get your money back out of it because everyone would know that everything being built was going to last? the power is always in the hand of the consumer. if we all demonstrated some discrimination the market will respond, that is a fact of the system we live in.
If we let the technology market continue to sell junk, and demand that
we throw out the junk for newer junk, then they will continue to
degrade the quality of its products, and increase their waste. No
one really wants that; not the technologists, not the ecologists, and
not the consumer. Right?!
If you haven’t joined Causes (based in SF) check out their site, they are piggy backing on FB and raising money are awareness about awesome positive things for the world, all the stuff I’m trying to talk about here, so ya. Check them out if you haven’t already Causes.
Speaking of technology, this is lookin delicious