These days, for many of us, technology plays a big part in our lives, whether it’s a phone, watch, fitness tracker or the sat-nav in our cars. Lots of us own internet-connected devices too: webcams, games consoles, smart TVs, fitness and sleep trackers. And (horrifyingly) ‘smart speakers’ that listen in to all your private conversations, silently learning about how you live, what you value and who you like – and don’t like!
Tech companies spend millions on highly sophisticated marketing, based on the latest research (including psychology, sociology, behavioural economics and anthropology) so they can keep us on the technology hamster-wheel. To keep their shareholders happy, they aim to grow revenues by selling us more. That means designing new models with new features (many of which are software improvements) and then persuade us that we need to buy that latest product.
We could describe the current economic approach as a throughput, or ‘linear’ economy – we take some materials, make a product, use it and then discard it… take, make, pollute and waste. As more of us take action on the climate and biodiversity emergency – which is fuelled by this linear economy – we are starting to ask big questions, and rethink the way we live, work and socialise.
We’re becoming aware of ethical issues in buying products made in low-cost, low-regulation countries, including unsafe working conditions, child labour, forced labour, low pay and more.
We are hearing safety concerns too, with risks for our health, for the workers, and for those dealing with the products after we’ve discarded them. Modern technology contains materials known to be toxic and damaging to human health as well as our natural world. Examples include PVC, Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) and phthalates. Some of these are banned by the EU’s RoHS Directive, but not all. Find out more in this article from Ethical Consumer.
So how do we get off this hamster-wheel? How do we ‘take back control’ (to borrow that popular Brexit slogan!)? We can start by remembering that we have choices, and ask ourselves:
- Do I even need this?
- If so, is this the best choice I can make for my family, our planet and wider society?
- Is there a smarter way to have access to it, so I can use it instead of owning it?
Why aren’t technology products easier to repair and upgrade? Sonos ‘smart speakers’ are the latest example of a company unashamedly using ‘planned obsolescence’ to drive new sales: announcing it would no longer upgrade software equipment that might only be four years old. Back in 2018, Samsung and Apple were fined millions of Euros by the Italian authorities for deploying forced software ‘upgrades’ on older smartphones, causing ‘significantly reduced performance’ and ‘serious malfunctions’. Their aim was to ‘persuade’ us to buy the newest model instead.
So how can we keep our older models in good working order?
- iFixit, a global online community dedicated to helping people repair all sorts of stuff, tests phones, tablets and laptops to check how repairable they are – you can see the scores on its website. Fairphone is the only phone to score 10/10, and replacing a screen on a Fairphone2 takes less than 2 minutes, compared to an hour for most phones.
- iFixit‘s contributors all around the world are on a mission to share their ‘how to’ guides, drawings, videos and parts lists so everyone can keep their stuff in good working order. There are free step-by-step guides for over 20,000 products, including apparel, appliances, technology, and vehicles.
- Repair Cafes are a growing international network, setting up meetings at which people repair anything from household electrical and mechanical devices to bicycles, clothing and computers. There are now over 2000 worldwide, and there is a handy starter kit on the website if you fancy getting one going locally.
- The Restart Project is a UK-based social enterprise helping people to learn how to repair their broken electronics – and to rethink whether they need to buy them in the first place. It runs regular ‘Restart’ parties, with people helping each other learn how to repair their slow or= broken tech devices. Their website has a Repair Resources section, including Top Fixing Tips and a Restarters Wiki covering computers, phones, gadgets, household and kitchen items. It has guides on techniques like soldering, fixing, how to stay safe and lots more.
Consign shoddy appliances to the dustbin of history
iFixit says that companies don’t want you to get their products fixed, telling us ‘It took a lawsuit to force Apple to offer a battery replacement program. Many companies, including Apple, refuse to sell replacement parts to independent shops.’
iFixit says that just isn’t right, and believes we should have a right to repair. Its manifesto says ‘To keep the right to repair in consumers’ hands, we need to enact real reform. It’s time to establish a consumers’ bill of rights.
We have the right:
- to open everything we own
- to modify and repair our things
- to unlock and jailbreak the software in our electronics
We must have access
- to repair information
- to products that can be repaired
- to reasonably-priced, independent repair shops’
In an article in Positive News, Libby Peake, senior policy advisor at Green Alliance, says that if governments raised standards (for example requiring components to last for at least 10 years) it would ‘consign shoddy appliances to the dustbin of history, be hugely popular and offer considerable environmental benefits.’