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6 August 2014

Your cool new phone is damaging the planet: it’s time for some anti-design

The only genuinely sustainable approach to tech products is to design them in ways that decrease people's reliance on technology.

By Bran Knowles

The idea that digital culture is somehow the heart of new minimalist lifestyles – a turning away from the need for material “things” in favour of a handheld device  is a myth, and a pernicious one.

It’s an attractive idea. If so many of our social, cultural and practical everyday needs can be delivered through digital material and exchange then we have the instant “feel-good” factor from having a simpler life, requiring so much less clutter and stuff, less production, less energy-use. It’s all positive and beneficial, especially for those people living in cities and countries where space is at a premium, if your most important possessions and activities fit into a pocket.

The problem is that digital devices are the focus of the very kind of hyper-consumption that is central to all our sustainability issues. The markets and marketing for phones, tablets, laptops are dominated by the drive for the new, whether that’s in substance or just style. As consumers we only want the latest versions, with strong links having been forged between digital fashions and social status, and where we are seemingly happy to accept short product life-spans, even “built-in obsolescence”, products that are designed to break. There’s also the issue of what effect digital culture has on attitudes to “things”. Devices are used as a quick option for shopping; and much of what is bought is in a digital form, and so treated as ephemeral, despite the lasting real world (ie. energy and carbon) implications of its storage on hard drives.

The implications of a global reliance on digital living are serious. Already more than 50m tonnes in e-waste is produced each year as consumers ditch their “old” devices whether they work or not. For example, in 2010 the US discarded 282m mobile phones and computers. Only around 13 per cent of components within discarded electronics is believed to be recycled, and most ending up in e-waste dumps in developing countries (along with all the vast quantities of toxic materials like lead, cadmium and berylium). Small devices might look and feel clean, but besides the energy they use in themselves, they are just one part of a huge network of energy-thirsty manufacturing plants and data farms.

As individuals we are now locked into a dependence on digital resources, based on the provision from businesses and other organisations. It may be that there are “green” designs which would make some difference to the situation: building-block devices where old or broken components can simply be replaced without the need for another purchase.

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But essentially the introduction of “green designs” only means more production and more consumption. The only genuinely sustainable approach is to design in ways that decrease people’s reliance on technology. This means, as a start, knowing when not to design a technological solution to a problem that could be solved by other means. But additionally, it means developing a field of research around “non-use” and the challenges of designing to build competencies and resources to enable us to live independent of gadgets and gizmos.

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As a member of a technological research community that is united by sustainability concerns, a frustration for me and my peers is that this kind of approach – aimed at reducing consumption and with no obvious commercial or economic value – doesn’t make for an appealing prospect to funding councils. The so-called digital economy is driven, as we might expect, by an imperative to make technological research and development profitable. This need not always mean that the end goal is the creation of a commercial product; and indeed, much of what the digital economy contributes is making our businesses and institutions more profitable through their use of technology. But design for “non-use” does not tick this box either. The goal of such research would be to maximise wellbeing, which bears little relation to wealth or the health of the economy.

Interestingly, the prospect of societal collapse that may very well result from our unsustainability has opened up a research space called Collapse Informatics for exploring how we might cope with a practical need to live without many of the technologies we currently take for granted. And yet, a world with fewer technological dependencies need not be a consequence of catastrophe. It could be a designed choice, and it may indeed be the role of activist researchers to paint a picture of a future society where digital life is reduced while “regular life becomes that much more fulfilling. Ultimately, this may not be about designing “solutions” to the problem of technological hyper-consumption so much as it is about engaging in a cultural and perhaps global dialogue about what the role of our technology has become, and what we would prefer it to be.

Bran Knowles is a research associate at Lancaster University