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Upgrading ourselves towards obsolescence

By James Massola - posted Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Modern consumer society is structured so that we are constantly unhappy with what we have. Advertisers make us feel dissatisfied so we keep buying new things, which is good for the economy but bad for the environment. Consumers collaborate in this wastefulness by being fooled into thinking that they can fill the inner void by consuming. Clive Hamilton

About a month ago I got a new mobile phone. I like to imagine that I am not a “phone person” - I won’t answer a phone when in the middle of a conversation, I relish putting it on silent, and I occasionally still leave the house without it. However like most people these days, I’m fairly beholden to it.

This new phone had all the bells, whistles, and things I-never-knew-I-needed-but-now-would-find-changed-my-life. To wit, an address book big enough to hold the population of Panama (3.19 million according to the CIA), colour screen the size of the Jumbotron, six air bags, eight cup holders, flux capacitor … you get the idea.


I was amazed at all of these features. A call to Clive Hamilton at the Australia Institute revealed I was not the only person wondering "why all the techno-wizardry?"

As Mr Hamilton put it, "Until companies start thinking in terms of what might be a more environmentally sound approach to building new products, I fear we will be stuck with this interminable ‘upgrade or be obsolete’ mentality".

When it came time to charge the phone, I discovered my old charger did not fit my new phone. Imagine my surprise. Both were made by Nokia, one was two years older than the other. Thankfully there was a new charger in the box.

I examined the point of the new charger. It was around one-one-millionth of a per cent smaller than the old charger, thus utterly unusable. Why?

I’m not trying to single out Nokia. The phone could have been a Sony Ericsson, a Motorola or a Samsung. Mobile phone makers have a taken a lot of heat in recent years from consumer groups and governments about being environmentally responsible.

A call to Nokia, followed by some browsing on the homepage, revealed a plethora of “corporate responsibility” type statements, environmental reports, information on how to recycle one’s old phone and the like. But what about my charger? In one fell swoop, the ten chargers I had accumulated, inherited, and purchased over the years were rendered useless lumps of plastic.


This got me thinking about other technology companies. Apple is the darling of our new media age. Its iPod, music store, “digital lifestyle solutions” and computers are the sine qua non of chic designers, pedantic publishers and posing pusses everywhere. But are they enviro-friendly?

After a series of phone calls, I received an email from John Marx, a public relations executive at Apple, in response to my questions about recycling older computers, long-term disposal of discontinued products, and how Apple could justify releasing products that were not “backwards compatible”.

His reply, in part:

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First published in Eureka Street on April 3, 2007.

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About the Author

James Massola is the Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is also completing a Master's degree in International Relations.

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