Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 3:26 pm

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jon_winebrenner
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I along with many others here lament about the lifespan of most products we interact with. The concept of the toaster that has lasted 35 years and still going strong seems to be a good strong symbol of sustainable design on these forums.

The thread of convergence (http://boards.core77.com/viewtopic.php? ... 52#p163652) as well as Tarngerine's Modai project (http://boards.core77.com/viewtopic.php?f=20&t=23096) got me thinking about the lifespan of our products.

I believe it was LMO that put a photo of cell phones being dumped by the thousands out of a bucket onto a conveyor belt. Implying that they're headed for the dump or some other pile of obsolescence. If the typical lifespan of an electronic device is about 18 months, we're consuming at a pretty incredible rate.

How do we stop this? Many of the most beloved products of designers (I'm looking at you iPhone) has a limited lifespan. Don't agree with me? How long do you think a fully enclosed Lithium Ion battery will last before it can't hold a charge and is useless.

How does this change? Can it change? The skeptic in me doesn't think so. There's an inherent lifespan in electronics. Whether it is with Moore's Law, or the simple fact that most electronic devices are used daily. That's a LOT of wear and tear for a device that fits in your hand. Rubbing in your pocket or purse all day. Getting dropped onto everything from tile to concrete and into toilet bowls.

It is also a question for all of those barking words like "sustainable" but wearing their iPhone's as a badge of honor. Theirs a hypocrisy going on here. This is a bit of a calling out of that. But its also a question in the form of....How can this change?

I was at a conference once and one of the presenters made a claim along the lines of:
You can design the best product or interface in the world. But if you expect people to change their behavior to adopt it....you need to be prepared for complete and utter failure.
This thought really resonated with me. Sustainability, or whatever the latest buzz word is, is a crap concept if we expect the general public to change their behavior. We have billions of people who live in poverty that are slowly clawing themselves into the modern world. Coming online with automobiles costing $2500 USD (http://www.tata.com/), owning cellphones when less than a decade ago they didn't even own a landline telephone.

Again, the skeptic in me doesn't believe this "problem" is going to go away with recycling programs or Cradle to Cradle design processes. Until the iPhone (and the billions of other electonics being made a year) are conjoured up (and disposed of?) by Harry Potter i don't see this rate of consumption going away.

Electronics are inherently nasty bits of engineering. The chemicals and materials that are in there, let alone that are required to create the bits and pieces contain some evil shit. We can make ourselves feel better by buying a product that is dismantled easier than another product or whatever. But the truth is, purely consuming an electronic device is nasty business.

What's the question? Dunno. I'm looking for thoughts on this. Counters to my skeptical view. Maybe a link to an article that shows a group of people who are onto real solutions to this issues of consumption.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 3:37 pm

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Timf
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While I agree with everything you are saying, I would not equate Electric products (Toaster) to Electronic products (Cell Phone). The beasts are very different in their complexity and lifespan. That said 18 months for a cell phone is completely ridiculous.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 3:41 pm

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jon_winebrenner
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Agreed, Tim....the toaster isn't necessarily an "electronics product". But it paints the right image for what people hold as a gold standard for a definition of a sustainable product.

Does the standard change, just because it is an electronic device? Can a cell phone last 10+ years? What is acceptable?

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:26 pm

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I think some of it will improve as companies adopt standards and components become more modular. I can see a future where I can keep my existing phone's case and display and swap in a new processor/memory instead of throwing the whole thing away. Maybe even repurpose the old one to power a less demanding application - an ebook reader or something - for which I'd just have to buy the shell.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:30 pm

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I think how we relate to our technology and each other needs to change to truly answer the problem. There are tens of thousands of iPhones that will hit the scrap heap this year, even though there still exists people that would want one. Our economy is set up to sell the iPhone 4, but only a few cheapskates like me, would go through the hassle of putting the old one up on ebay. Moreover, the batteries are always a problem.

BTW, last week, I replaced a dying battery in one of my cordless phones with 2 rechargable NiMH AAAs. It works like new.

A lot of people just toss out old tech. when the battery dies. Or, they buy a cheap aftermarket battery and then toss it when it doesn't seem to perform as before.

Kinda on this topic, is a short story I read last week: Last Day at Work by Douglas Rushkoff. I love this guys stuff:

http://newsroom.intel.com/docs/DOC-1490

Toss it on the Kindle and let me know what you think!

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:32 pm

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Mr 914,

I am guessing you are also lucky, like most countries other than the US, where your phone is not locked so you can easily sell it to someone else. There are so many business models that need to be redesigned.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:39 pm

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Mr-914 wrote:Toss it on the Kindle and let me know what you think!

Funny you mention the Kindle here. One of my concerns in buying the Kindle was how long it might last. Will it be a "typical" electronic device and be dead in 2 yrs? I pretty much factored into my decision to purchase that I expect...with non-daily usage, that I should be able to stretch it to 5 years.

Is 5 yrs acceptable? If it dies in less than that, should I buy another? Will another brand, or the next generation be better?

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:40 pm

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Timf wrote:Mr 914,

I am guessing you are also lucky, like most countries other than the US, where your phone is not locked so you can easily sell it to someone else. There are so many business models that need to be redesigned.

No...they lock phones in Canada too.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 4:52 pm

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Great topic ip.
I honestly don't think we're ever going to solve this issue. Even if things go the route of biodegradable corn based resins or something like Tarngerine's Modai project (reminds me of the Red digital cinema camera in a more mass consumer line) there are too many factors involved.
When you look at the Modai project, there is a lot of responsibility to actually send obsolete parts back to the manufacturer. It's a good idea in theory but will the consumer take the time to do it? Will the manufacturer take the hit for shipping?
I think planned obsolescence makes companies a lot of money these days. Do you think they are going to say to themselves "Hey everybody, lets focus more on making something that lasts and not making our ourselves/shareholders rich." I'm sure there are firms out there trying to achieve the greater good, but I'm also sure there are many more designers out there striving to be the rock stars who have bought in to this cult-ish ideology of mass producing something new and shiny every year. As Industrial Designers I think we’re a large part of the problem, most of us want to have that moment of glory where we see our product lined up row upon endless row. Most of us want to have that moment more then once.
"I must keep the windows open wide enough to let fresh air in but never wide enough for me to jump out." - Attaboy

Woot!

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 5:34 pm

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jon_winebrenner
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Just came across this presentation.....timely?

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 23rd, 2010, 9:16 pm

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Timf: I don't have a cel. I agree that the whole market should be reformed. It's funny how a country known for 'freedom' and 'capitalism' has no competition in the cel market that is styled on the European standard of unlocked phones.

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 24th, 2010, 4:10 am

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I believe it was LMO that put a photo of cell phones being dumped by the thousands out of a bucket onto a conveyor belt. Implying that they're headed for the dump or some other pile of obsolescence. If the typical lifespan of an electronic device is about 18 months, we're consuming at a pretty incredible rate.

How do we stop this? Many of the most beloved products of designers (I'm looking at you iPhone) has a limited lifespan. Don't agree with me? How long do you think a fully enclosed Lithium Ion battery will last before it can't hold a charge and is useless.

How does this change?

John,

your OP resonates with a discussion Ray and I had off the board about the Apple devices vs. modern housing in terms
of sustainability and longevity. I am so glad to see someone else on the board thinking about the way most designers worship the design of hardware, that in my opinion should be rather built for breakup, not "eternity".
The picture of the dumped cell phones doesn't shatter me that much, though. At least they are already separated and may
just head to being recycled.

I am so glad to see, that the US as a whole are slowly playing catchup on recycling and lifespan design,
(which includes end of lifecycle scenarios).
Here in Europe some of the basics have been implemented for 25 years now. (thanks to the green party.) It is simply forbidden to drop electronics into the "trash-can" and every neighbour would point his finger, if you did. There are recycling stations for this, which have separate containers for microwaves, fridges, small electronics, cell
phones etc...

I for one think that a mindset, that was formed within 250 years hinders the US at the moment. In difference to europe there was always plentiful supply of land and ressources. If a burb of Detroit went downhill, just move some more miles out... If the landfill was swamped, create a new one.

So today the landfills of the 60ies are seen as a most valuable ressource to drill in and obtain noble earths.

I am not pessimistic about it, but rather optimistic. If the U.S. as a whole start to shift to "green" sustainability would gather so much momentum! Just remember it being a process of reform and advancement. There are no absolute solutions. Everyone looking for that perfect solution would form a radical position, which would block a valuable
progression in a better direction.

mo-i

P.S. : My cell will be 5 years in June. I'll demand a medal, then.
Image

It's a phone, it's my "point and shoot" (even video), and my navigator if walking. Why on earth should
I get another one? I even hate to change my car after 100K miles. (company policy)
I am not young enough to know everything.
Oscar Wilde

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 24th, 2010, 5:39 am

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There are signs that the economic uncertainty is already changing consumer demands in terms of longevity. The whole idea of buy less, but buy better is really taking hold and the change in mindset towards an era of conscious consumption is something that many are predicting will continue well into the foreseeable future (much as the 'make do and mend' mindset of the ww2 era continued even after the war ended).

What it actually means for the electronics industry is probably up for much debate, but I am pretty optimistic that the industry will respond to their consumers - the ability to update the software on your phone - effectively getting a 'brand new' phone - is an example of this (you didn't get that on your 3310!). Just look at how much anticipation is put on the next Android update! As long as the hardware supports the software updates for 3-4 years there is an increasingly compelling reason for people to keep their phones for longer. As more and more electrical products become software driven, surely this will begin to apply there too.

Those are my thoughts anyway!
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Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 24th, 2010, 9:10 am

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The company I work for put together a concept phone based on longer lifespan cell phones last year...

The idea behind the 'Revive' phone would be an object that you would keep for years, while the business model was based around upgrading the internal parts as the technology improved rather than buying an entirely new phone (they even thought up a point system to reward good customers with upgrades and an interface that had more personality).

This would change cell phones from disposable hunks of plastic that last a year or two into into a long term investment that hopefully you would have more of an emotional connection with. It would age and develop a patina that was like a classic wristwatch. The Modai project picked up some the same lines of thought, and I think it's an interesting idea in general... Maybe not for everybody, but it could reduce a lot of e-waste

Image
http://www.kinneirdufort.com/work/consumer/revive

Re: Electronic's Lifespan

December 24th, 2010, 11:50 am

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mo-i wrote:The picture of the dumped cell phones doesn't shatter me that much, though. At least they are already separated and may just head to being recycled.
Have a look around for a documentary about the towns in China that are taking the piles of recycled electronics and stripping them for the precious metals in them. It works in conjunction with the video I posted above. "Recycling" quite often not "recycling". But separating. The PCBs of all those electronics can't be recycled. But they do contain a lot of gold, copper, and other precious metals. Cathode Ray Tubes? Same thing. They have armies of people and children smashing these things up and boiling them down to extract all this stuff. It's destroying their health in the process.

While recycling is good for "Western Civilization"....destroying lives in developing nations.

Again, I don't have answers here. But rather looking for those who have new ideas to solve these problems. More to the point, looking for examples of people who are already doing this.

mo-i wrote:I am so glad to see, that the US as a whole are slowly playing catchup on recycling and lifespan design,
(which includes end of lifecycle scenarios).
Here in Europe some of the basics have been implemented for 25 years now. (thanks to the green party.) It is simply forbidden to drop electronics into the "trash-can" and every neighbour would point his finger, if you did. There are recycling stations for this, which have separate containers for microwaves, fridges, small electronics, cell
phones etc...

Honestly, it isn't so much the US that scares me. In fact, I see the USA as the tip of the ice berg. It is the billions of other humans on the planet that haven't had the luxuries we've had for the past 100+ years. I've already mentioned it in this thread. There's an order of magnitude of people that are perched to enter the consumer market as well. I'm enough of a cynic to think that that group of people aren't just going to say,

"Hey, it's ok that my family and their predecessors have lived in abject poverty while your family had SUVs, 4 ATVs, Large Screen TVs and a cell phone every year or two."

I am by no means saying "stop recycling". But I see the phase we're in as moving too slow. I'm impatient. I want to see what feels like the right solution start moving. Recycling is a patch. Not a solution.
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