A few days ago I ran across this article about the effects of computers on the environment and the business models behind them. I thought it would be a great time to introduce this subject in the context of the “Rethinking Ethics in a Digital World” series.
Howard is definitely knowledgeable and more informed on the subject than I am as he works directly with Free Geek, so in general I’ll trust him as an expert in this dialog. However, I’d like to expand on the discussion he started and broaden the scope of it. As a good introduction to the topic, he points out the main problem with the PC business model: it’s based on newer and newer products instead of services and usefulness to the consumer. The Microsoft win-win-win triangle does include the customer, but frankly there are many other ways to have the customer win in this scenario without having planned obsolescence and having the customer always have to upgrade (as we also learned in the post about the ethics of file formats). In fact, as a general rule, planned obsolescence is anti-customer. If you can get the same new functionality without having to buy anything (or at least less), then you save money and have the new functionality. That seems like win-win for the customer to me.
A friend of mine was happy to note that Apple was conspicuously absent from the article, so I’ll go ahead and add them into the mix as well. Of course, their market share for personal computers, although growing again, is almost negligible to the PC market which, I have a feeling, was the main reason Apple was omitted. I will admit that Apple is more of a service organization and generally have longer life spans for their computers. However, as a marketing tool they generally use planned obsolescence in a different way. Like changing the style of cars every two to three years to convince people to buy newer ones, Apple makes sure their products look different and feel newer and cooler every year. In a nutshell, Apple sells image much more than they sell computing power. While different, that business model is still cut from the same cloth as Microsoft’s; it gets you to become dissatisfied with your older computer so you will continue to purchase newer computers. There’s nothing unethical about this from a business sense, but as Christians we should be careful that we aren’t just conforming to Apple’s image either. Is that the reason there is a bite out of the Apple logo?
While planned obsolescence is anti-consumer, one could also argue that it is just flat out unethical, but that is a further stretch. At least in the first few decades of personal computing, computing power has followed Moore’s law (computing power will double about every 18-24 months). A lot of these gains have allowed the customer to realize greater and faster computing that has made their work much more efficient. However, we have entered a time when (non-business) customers don’t really care about more computing power. Their applications don’t need any more processing power (except the large, bloated operating system, I guess). Therefore, processors have stopped getting faster and now have moved to being multi-core or more energy efficient. Planned obsolescence has gotten increasingly harder. New markets are being formed with increasingly less powerful devices like netbooks, cellphones, and yes, the ever popular iPad, instead of more powerful desktop or laptop computers. And while the fall in sales on traditional personal computers can be attributed to the rise of these new devices, some of the fall is also attributable to the fact that people don’t really want or need a newer more powerful computer; rather they want the smaller, cooler form factor. The new form factor markets are another way to create obsolescence.
Although it’s fine to buy a new computer if you need it, buying a new computer just because it looks newer and cooler is tied very tightly to our pride. It’s in our nature to want to have an image that is associated with the newest, coolest, shiniest aluminum-cased computer out there. However, the Bible teaches pervasively that pride like this is sin. It was Satan’s downfall. I won’t belabor the point, but the fact is that as Christians we should be happy with what we have. When you really need a new computer, go buy a good one that will last you a long time. But really do keep it for a long time. Otherwise, you’re defeating the purpose of buying a long lasting computer (and usually paying extra for it). Don’t let marketing hype and trends lead you like you have a hook in your nose.
The other side of Howard’s argument and the main meat of his article is not necessarily on the business model, but the environmental effects of this model. The amount of environmental resources used to manufacture a single computer is staggering when you consider there are more than a billion personal computers out there. But was there any forethought of how these were to be properly disposed of? Who pays this cost? The manufacturers that made billions of dollars on their sale? Tax payers? Poor developing countries where most of the manufacture took place? As a corporation, these costs are called externalizations. They are costs that must be paid, but are always externalized from the budgets (and concern) of the corporation making the product and therefore aren’t included in their profit margin and stock price.
With externalizations like those that effect the environment, we need to let the buck stop with us as the consumer. We need to take responsibility for our actions and the repercussions that ensue from our consumption. As Christians we need to care for the creation that God has entrusted to us and care for the poor that are usually the biggest losers from bad environmental practices. The Biblical grounds for that have been well-covered in recent years through books, podcasts, blogs and other mediums so I won’t reproduce them yet again. I’d rather focus on how we can take responsibility.
First, we can support companies that have good work standards and environmental practices. When you always look for cheap, somebody eventually pays the cost for your cheapness, and it isn’t you. This is an extremely selfish way to look at buying things. Look to pay more for something that lasts longer and try to find manufacturers that have good environmental standards. If you can’t find it out easily, contact the companies whose products you’re interested in and ask them to provide it so corporations know that it is important to their consumers. Nothing drives change in corporations like knowing they might lose customers if they don’t change their practices.
Also, make sure you dispose of your waste appropriately even if it costs you money. This cost is just the externalization cost handed back to you as the consumer because the company you bought your computer from didn’t pay for it. Let’s take responsibility for our consumption. Many cities have good recycling programs funded by local governments. Look and ask around a little, and you can usually find a place that will take your old computer (also cell phones, etc.) and also dispose of it properly. As mentioned in the article, seek to reuse rather than recycle or buy new. If your current computer is just slow, first try to get it cleaned up so it isn’t slow any more. You can also consider upgrading just the memory or processor instead of the whole machine. Also, if it still does the job for you, just be happy even if it’s big and clunky or not cool or new looking. Don’t get caught up in image. If you do need a newer computer, try to find someone that can use your old one.
Of course, as the article mentions, using Linux can drastically expand the useful lifetime of hardware. Most people just need a simple computer with an internet connection, a browser, and an office suite. There are great free open source alternatives to easily fulfill those needs. You might spend a little extra time or money repurposing a computer for Linux, but this is just another way to take responsibility and pay for externalizations that are caused by our consumption.
On a related note, you should also try to find digital distribution methods for all of your software and documentation. If you’re anything like me, all of the disks and manuals just take up space in your house and you never use them anyway. With open source software, it’s even easier to do this as digital distribution is usually the only method for getting the documentation and software to your computer.
Just a quick example to finish things out, I have a cell phone that is over 6 years old. Its screen is cracked. It’s battery life is waning. I’ve been drooling over all the new smart phones coming out for at least a couple of years now. But the truth is, I’m connected to a real computer about 90% of the time and the other 10% I don’t want to be connected. I don’t need a new cell phone because the old one does what I need it to do: call people or receive calls when I’m away from my home or work. Once it finally bites the dust or becomes completely obsolete, I won’t feel bad about buying a new one that will hopefully last me another decade. But until then, I need to be happy with the fact that I can talk to anyone almost anywhere which was impossible a couple decades ago. I’m not giving this example to make myself look good because honestly, if I didn’t have a wife and friends that challenged me in this way, I’d have a new phone (maybe several) by now. Rather, I want to show that we don’t always count the blessings we have available because we are always chasing after the newer, cooler things just out of reach.
So in summary, be content with what you have, be concerned for others and how your choices effect them, and most of all take responsibility for your choices and consumption. We all have to consume, but when we try to see our modern consumption through Biblical and ethical values, it should drastically change how we do it. This is just one more way to rethink our ethics in a digital world.