Thaddeus Howze thinks gadgets are failing us, despite their touted awesomeness to humanity.
I write about technology and have done so for many years. There are two camps of technology writers, journalists who read about trends in the tech world and write about them for lay people and technologists who ply their trade by day and write about it by night. I am one of those, but by the end of this article you might want to call me a Luddite. I am not. I think technology is one of the best expressions of the human intellect ever seen. Our adoration of technology seems coupled with what seems to be an innate blindness about the long-term effects of our technology on our planet and equally important, on ourselves.
I am one of those writers who rarely writes about gadgets. I will write about a piece of software without reservation, but a gadget always leaves me cold, no matter how useful it might be. Having used technology over the years, I have had differing opinions about what was being done and why. I have decided our current trend in the creation of gadgets is, despite the economic prosperity for mega-corporations, an epic fail for the world at large.
Here’s why I think gadgets are failing us, despite their touted awesomeness to humanity. They are:
Ecologically unsound: every time a gadget is made an angel loses its wings and a bigger hole is dug into the earth to harvest the raw materials used in the technology for it. The metals contained in computers commonly include aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, manganese, mercury, palladium, platinum, selenium, silver, and zinc. This does not even talk about the toxic processes used to create computers or their components or the outrageous amounts of water required to create them. The average PC takes 27,000 gallons of water to produce. (Environmental Science & Technology, 2004). So let’s be nice and say the average gadget uses half that much water, it is offset by the increased number of devices being sold.
Designed around planned obsolescence: they are more delicate than any other kind of computing technology – more apt to break and more expensive to repair, often costing more than the device did to make in the first place. An iPad costs an estimated $260 to create, even if you paid more than $600 to own it, if you break it after the warranty, the cost to repair it will be at an average of $75 an hour, plus materials. So the cost to repair the device will only take three hours to exceed its initial creation costs. Take six hours and it is simply easier to buy a new one (and you get a warranty again.)
Not designed for reuse: companies produce new versions of the hardware as if there were no ecological or environmental effect for their production. Adding insult to injury, the devices are not being reused, or built to last so they can BE reused, effectively. Our society also does a poor job of ensuring devices are directed toward people who could and would be willing to reuse said devices.
Toys not tools: As much as I love technology, I have talked about how the idea of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to work is only adding to the complexity of a technological environment or “technosphere” that has not been mastered completely. Most of these new devices, are simply not powerful enough to really justify how well they may work in the environment, but they are pretty, feel good and people feel good using them.
Mostly, they feel like toys not tools to me. Each new device brings its own issues, including security, compatibility, hardware and data requirements into the office enterprise network. It has already been noted by network engineers and service providers that little thought has been given to the explosive effect on the enterprises they have been introduced into. Not saying they do not have a future, but any IT person who was really worth a damn would admit they are mostly not ready for prime time. Anyone who says otherwise is getting paid to say so.
Expensive: Depending on the device and its expected operation, they can cost as much as a computer with far less computing capability. Paying more for less has never sat well with me. In addition, the devices are built around a service model that requires the user pay for expensive services to utilize the most touted feature, mobility. Thanks to our friends over at TC Geeks for giving some support about effective pricing plans for the iPad.
Reduce personal/social index: People have become more dependent on their devices for communication, eschewing personal interactions locally for remote interactions. This shows up in reduced personal and social skills in the workplace. I can’t tell you how many interviews I have given where new potential employees will whip out their device in the middle of an interview as if it was the thing to do. Those that don’t, seem to barely remember how to talk to people, in person ensuring a painful and unpleasant interview for all.
Reduced brainpower: How many of you can remember the top ten phone numbers of the people you call most regularly? People are forgetting even the simplest skills like spelling, punctuation since they have access to tools like Google online. There have even been articles discussing the idea that search engines are affecting our ability to remember facts or focus our attention. The Atlantic’s article on Has Google Made Us Stupid sums it up. When you’re done here, check it out; a cringe-worthy discussion.
Shortened Attention Span: There is also the question of devices and their affect on our capacity for long-term focus. We have become accustomed to receiving data in short bursts and longer information is often skimmed or not read at all. You cannot easily build a future in a world where no one is willing (or capable) of reading longer than a paragraph.
I say gadgets have failed because in a time where an awareness of our environment seems to be growing less important to people in government, the very idea of climate change and global warming has been placed on the same bandwagon as the theory of evolution, as an idea people contest like we do the idea of a flat Earth. The check of how we treat our environment is coming due, gadgets are becoming an extravagant and luxurious way for us to speed our inevitable decline into a poisoned planet, paid in full while we cheerful rage with our Angry Birds apps.
Hyperbole? Perhaps. But you have to remember that we produce tens of millions of these devices. Can you name ten different portable devices? Sure you can. But I bet if you try, you could name twenty or thirty. Consider every version of these devices when you count. The number rises quickly.
Example: The first generation iPad sold 15 million prior to the launch of the iPad2. The iPad2 is still being sold and its current estimates say they will sell 30 million. With the popularity of the first two, we can expect to see sales equal to or greater than the first two combined. So if we are conservative, we can say 75 million of these devices will have been made in the first four years of the device’s existence. It is estimated that Apple sold 100 million iPhones worldwide already.
Let’s add to this the fact there are several other companies producing devices of a similar nature and you can see how quickly this is adding up to an ecological disaster of epic proportions. And the rate of adoption is speeding up, not slowing down. While the market may be thinning due to competition, those customers whose needs are not being served by one company are being met by another. A few names include the Sony E-reader(10 versions), the Amazon Kindle (4 versions) the Kobe Touch ereader (3 versions), and the Nook and Nook Color. (A more complete list can be found: Comparison of e-book readers).
Gadgetry’s technological epic fail
I think there is an even greater fail inside of this explosion of gadgets, their limited capabilities, their device issues, their integration complexity, and their rabid adoption to the exclusion of good sense. How many developers have moved away from infrastructure issues that needed addressing because the money developing apps is simply so much better, they would rather do that than fix our overburdened, under-resourced, insecure, and soon to be over-regulated internet, on which we are building our entire world’s communication and business environment using virtualization, cloud computing and remote technologies?
Okay, bear with me a minute and look at it this way:
I have an old Dell 610 used to write articles like this one. When the machine was created it was created with Windows XP to run on it. The device is an old Pentium 4 processor and has only 512 megabytes of RAM so its not going to be a powerhouse no matter what I do with it. But when I load XP on the machine it takes nearly five minutes to load the operating system. XP will take nearly another two minutes to load just the security software I added to feel reasonably safe using the Internet. Seven minutes later I can load my browser or word processor and start writing. The limited memory profile ensures I won’t be doing too much more than a couple of windows being open at the same time.
This is not a failure, per se, it’s a sign of a piece of technology aging past its prime and the inevitable bulk that XP took on over the years, service updates, patches, upgrades, have made the use of this laptop an agonizing process to even boot up.
Then the unthinkable happened. Windows died. I almost decided to let the device just stay dead. I didn’t store any data on it, so there was no computing lament other than, I couldn’t write articles in bed anymore. Then I decided to install a version of Linux on it. The installation was painless and done is about twenty minutes. Here’s where it gets interesting. The computer would boot up in less than two minutes (1 minute, 40 seconds). It boots the browser in less than fifteen seconds. While the memory profile still won’t let me open more than five browser windows, I don’t have to wait nearly ten minutes to start working. Not a lot of time, I grant you, but if you had to wait ten minutes to get into your car before you went to work, or had to wait ten minutes from opening your fridge before you could reach in, you kind of get the idea.
There was a time when computing seemed to be heading along a path like this. Software development was working toward making Moore’s Law (the idea that technology evolves every 18-24 months and doubles the computing capacity of new processors) a boon to users everywhere. Then a peculiar twist happened. Software piracy caused companies to change their model from a software sales model to a hardware sales model. (That’s their story and they’re sticking to it.)
Software was too easy to steal, or so it goes, and therefore company profits were not what they should be. Hardware on the other hand was unique, proprietary, and profitable once you got the factories up. So the explosion of software (which has no hardware costs involved, which could have, if well-developed have improved the performance of the existing hardware) never happened.
Then the cost of processors, RAM and hard drives went down and this coupled with Moore’s Law made computing power cheaper and as a side-effect, programmers became sloppier. They no longer had to write tight code because there was more hard drive space, faster processors and more RAM. So our computing power, which could have been much better, if programmers had kept to the standards of previous eras, was only marginally better, thus further promoting the idea of moving to a mobility model, after all, this wouldn’t be noticed significantly by most users, who would just be enthused with the portability of their new, often far less powerful devices.
So while we are sitting about singing the praises of portable devices, let’s also look at the losses incurred when technology diverted from a path that could have been far more ecologically sound toward a model that decided profits mattered more than actually providing tools and services that would make computing more stable, effective and ultimately more secure, protecting data and credit card information better.
Creating software is ecologically sound because software uses no natural resources to create other than time. No factories needed to be built, no natural resources needed to be harvested, no water wasted. We could have used the time now frittered away on creating a new ecosystem of devices and their software to correct all of the failures, weaknesses in our internet ecosystem. I liken this change in the path of computing technology to the purchase of an old house (the internet) with faulty plumbing, no doors or windows and erratic wiring. You then fill it with new appliances and furniture (computers) and a wide array of expensive but sickly pedigreed pets (devices) who hate all of your furniture and each other and are constantly sick all over whatever they can get away with.
When you as the person living in the house call the power company, because you can’t get lights, he comes out and says they’re working on it and hands you a flashlight (service agreement). He comes back and tells you you can get a solar panel on your roof, (service providers) but it does not include any home repairs. Inevitably you expect your house to fail, but cannot find a contractor (developer) who would be interested in taking the job, because they would rather just breed sickly new pets for homes just like yours because it pays better.
Future looks bright doesn’t it?
P.S. All of you technologists and business moguls who will say I am not painting a fair picture of how the computing industry has worked out and software development improving the internet was a dead issue, the world has been made better by the creation of new apps such as Angry Birds and the like, new jobs have sprung up all over the world thanks to the creation of new hardware facilities to produce new gadgets, I say to you this: I am not discounting the profits made. I am not discounting how wealthy some of you have become due to the model that says hardware matters more than anything and the more you sell the richer you become. I am saying exactly that. YOU have become wealthy by not including the rest of the world in your mad dash for cash.
When you poison the air, water, food, and very ground we depend on for life on the planet, you have failed. When people die to gather the raw materials for your products or die because of the runoff from your toxic factories you deny exist, you have failed. When there are no effective programs to recycle the toxic materials of your devices and yet you create a newer version every year, you have failed. When you add new devices on top of an old and failing internet, without questioning what will happen once everyone has no choice but to be in the cloud, and creating an environment that cannot help BUT fail, you have failed in an epic fashion.
You promote conflict minerals and slave labor in countries where rare (or not so rare) earths may reside. You create companies where there are questionable human rights issues (Foxconn, you may take a bow), and ultimately exploit people who are not aware of the insidious plan to have everyone become part of the mobile bandwagon and then charge them extraordinary amounts of money to have to download commercials they don’t want but can’t stop, so you can sell them on the idea of being connected all the time to a network of information with dubious and questionable origins, regulating everything they see and hear, invading what little privacy they may think to keep, and providing little to no educational nutrition and yet want to call it progress.
Bite me. Do better.
Photo courtesy of Nicholas Smale