In late 2017, Apple confirmed a little known feature that comes with every upgrade to their phones. The feature makes iPhones “last as long as possible” by throttling their performance or spontaneously shutting them down [1]. Thanks to Apple’s commendable efforts in maintaining their products’ durability, they are facing sixty class action lawsuits for a strategy every single private retail company thrives upon: planned obsolescence. The strategy involves rendering a product unusable or unfashionable so consumers are effectively forced to buy the company’s newest product or service. Sound familiar? From clothing material that falls apart in a matter of months to furnaces that break down every winter, planned obsolescence is everywhere, but it is especially evident in technology.

At a time when technology is evolving at unprecedented rates, it’s only logical that products would also break down at unprecedented rates. To manufacturers, planned obsolescence is simply a misunderstanding because they are constantly changing their products to “match consumer needs” and “develop consumer trust.” But no worries, Apple is acknowledging this misunderstanding by charging consumers an extra $35 for a battery replacement that will fix the performance issues [2].

Apple is far from the only culprit in the vast market of technology. At any given week, an overwhelming bombardment of notifications from a Windows 10 laptop will ask to repair some bugs but instead install a dozen sponsored applications nobody ever ever asked for. If the laptop runs on an older version, the operating system will take the user to their wit’s end with endless “Upgrade to Windows 10!” notifications  followed by several “Upgrade notifier has stopped working!” messages.

Outside of mobile technology, printing company Lexmark International is passionately fighting for their customers’ ability to get arrested for refilling used ink cartridges. The company argues that reusing and refilling their products is a violation of patent rights. They also seem to believe that making their customers pay more instead of being environmentally friendly is ethical. Unfortunately for Lexmark and their dedicated goals in matching consumer needs, the Supreme Court of the United States—yes, printer ink went to the highest court—ruled that Lexmark’s patent becomes limited after sale [3].

Before we get emotional and infuriated with these companies, know that the consumers aren’t even the biggest losers in this whole cycle. No, that title belongs to developing countries, which receive fifty million tons of our electronic waste every year [4]. With the abundance of new technology—as well as the constant pressure from companies to buy even more—the average usage life of smartphones in the United States is less than two years [5]. Even worse, 89% of these discarded smartphones end up in landfills.

The impact is even more severe on these countries’ citizens. Entire communities of Chinese farmers turn to waste management as a quick and easy way to prosperity. What they don’t realize is that handling electronic waste is also a quick and easy way to fatal lead and chemical poisoning. However, that does not seem to be of concern for large technology companies. After all, they’re ruining the earth to buy another one, and of course it’s all for good business.

There’s still hope for change. In 2014, France passed what is commonly known as the “Hamon Law”, which forces companies to be transparent and indicate the product’s expected lifespan. Along with this, the country’s activist group, Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée, which translates to “Stop Planned Obsolescence,” sued printer companies Brother, Canon, Epson, and HP for falsely indicating that ink cartridges were depleted. The same group also sued Apple for deliberately slowing down phones. In other parts of the world, environmental and consumer rights groups call for change as more and more actions are being taken against large technology companies. They all envision a world with tougher business legislation, where progress and innovation translates to leaps in science and not deceptive marketing.

For now, we still buy clusters of metal, designed to look pretty for one month so they can fall apart in a year or two. We buy lies from technology giants and pollution for some rural area in southern China. We buy life-changing innovations, such as slightly bigger screens, slightly smaller bezels, and slightly faster processors, so they can become obsolete in a month with the emergence of the next generation of upgrades. Truly, innovation at its finest.

 

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/jan/18/iphone-apple-users-turn-off-feature-battery-slow-down-devices-ios-tim-cook

[2] https://www.apple.com/iphone-battery-and-performance/

[3] https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/581/15-1189/

[4] http://www.ipsnews.net/2017/09/50-million-tonnes-year-toxic-e-waste-go/

[5] http://www.green-alliance.org.uk/resources/A%20circular%20economy%20for%20smart%20devices.pdf