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All Good Gadgets Go to Waste

Photo: Walter Zerla/Getty Images/Cultura RF

“We hope you will experience many years of enjoyment from your new VIZIO HDTV,” portended our television’s user manual. The “hope” was doing a lot of work in that sentence.

We’ve had the TV since 2012, back when it was new, and have indeed experienced years of enjoyment from it. Even now, the picture is clear, the remote works, the sound is good enough. But the end is near; we can sense it.

The TV came with access to the internet. It’s “smart,” as they say, not merely because it is Wi-Fi-enabled, but also due to a circular button in the middle of the remote control. This button activated the “VIZIO Internet Apps” (VIA) dock, which scrolls along the bottom of the screen, allowing users one-click access to stream Netflix, YouTube, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or surf the web with its built-in browser. A “Widget Gallery” was also there to let us download future apps; the manual urged us to check often, as “this gallery is constantly being updated.”

But something happened since. Now, when I press the button to launch the VIA dock, access to YouTube and Amazon Prime has been lost, the web browser has disappeared, and the “Widget Gallery” is entirely gone. They were, I imagine, removed during some update when I wasn’t paying attention. We still use Netflix, but know its days are numbered too. Sure, there are backwards-compatible doohickeys like Apple TV or Roku that we could hook up to our television, but those seem like Scotch tape on a broken rearview mirror. It’ll hold, but for how long?

My grandma’s old antenna TV sat on a rolling cart for decades. Our “smart” TV will last a portion of that time. This is the way the smart home ends: not with a bang, but with obsolescence.

Obsolescence is nothing new in the world of consumer goods. It’s a side effect of capitalist-driven production, purposefully “planned” or at least built into the investment model, but also partially subsidized by first-adopters looking for symbols of social status.

When that first iPhone came out in 2007 and sold for $500, you immediately knew everyone who bought one, because they’d never shut up about it. This first-adopter model still exists, with the high cost of the latest batch of iPhones (the luxury iPhone X costs a grand; a new iPhone 8 starts at $699) ultimately coinciding with lower prices for older models (an iPhone 7, which cost $649 when originally released in 2016, can now be purchased for $100 less).

What’s changed is the speed at which slightly new, upgraded iPhones are being released. Of the 18 total iPhone versions (including “S”, “C”, and “Plus”) that have been released onto the market since 2007, 10 have been introduced since late 2014. And with that deluge of releases comes the speed at which consumers are slightly upgrading. In 2016, nearly 1.5 billion smartphones were sold. Meanwhile, there were 2.1 billion smartphone users. That either means folks are walking around with second and third phones, or heaps of them are getting left behind, first at the bottom of their desk drawers, before ultimately making their way to (hopefully) e-waste recycling or (more likely) landfills. This is what people are talking about when they mention a culture of disposability.

One cause of obsolescence, then, is how new gadgets are made available to an increasingly bored consuming public. Another cause is how hard they are to fix. During the PC days, computers were the sum of their removable and fixable parts. Cooling fans would break down, keys would pop off, screens would crack, but like a used car, the machine lasted as long as someone had the money and wherewithal to patch its problems until, ultimately, the price to fix outweighed the cost of a new one. Computers have changed.

In the New York Times, John Herrman lamented his iPad’s death. After only five years, it wasn’t that the components of the devices had broken down, but that the systems on which they ran had moved on:

If my old iPad could talk, it might ask me what has changed. If it could feel indignant, it might suggest that it isn’t the problem, and that everyone and everything else is. While it would be wrong according to the logic of its creation, it wouldn’t be incorrect.

As Herrman notes, this is inherently part of a device meant only to be a portal to the internet. The internet gradually gets better, or at least changes, as website design becomes more streamlined for monetization, or protocols move onto their next iteration. And with each evolutionary tweak, another set of devices fails to hold on, becoming worthless or drastically slowing down. It’s unclear which fate is more annoying.

But what happens when the device connected to the internet isn’t just a portal like an iPad or a laptop computer, but something you expect to last for a while — something that you buy to perform a non-webpage-driven task? What if these rapidly disintegrating devices are part of the expanding world of “smart” products: voice assistants, thermostats, washing machines, vacuums, security systems, or six-year-old HDTVs?

Purchase a “smart” device this afternoon, and the sales rep will tell you not to worry. “These will have updates,” they’ll say, “and customer service will walk you through any problems.” They’re not lying, but you should still ask them, “For how long?” Can they guarantee 12 years, the length of time that Microsoft kept its customer support intact for its Windows XP operating system? Can they guarantee anything?

When Microsoft ended its support for Windows XP, in 2016, the company explained:

[T]he time came for us, along with our hardware and software partners, to invest our resources toward supporting more recent technologies so that we can continue to deliver great new experiences.

That’s a way of saying “it wasn’t worth it for us anymore.” This concept is as old as capitalism — fix the old product until you make a new one. By then, most of the world would have moved on. And for those who were still nursing their old machines and carefully-cared-for gadgets, some third-party repair shop could fill in the gap. Just bring that old TV or lawnmower in, and the repair person would look at a manual, jigger a fix, and it’d be good to go. But even that solution has now been thwarted by a computer-chip-size roadblock.

In late 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law. It was meant to solve the problem of the internet: Analog resources (finite, like a single record, distributed by a record company) lost ownership when digitized (infinite copies, like a shared MP3, distributed from a website). A few years later, major record companies — and the band Metallica — famously forced the death of Napster. It was a noble cause, arguably. The effect not only gave artists ownership of their art, but programmers ownership of their code.

Without the DMCA, not only would pirated copies of every album and movie be easily, and legally, obtainable, but so would copies of every possible computer program, like Microsoft Word, Adobe InDesign, and Macromedia’s Final Cut Pro. The argument was that programmers, artists in their own right, wouldn’t earn financial return on their inventions, theoretically disincentivizing them to continue inventing more. A free and open internet gave way to a proprietary model that turned it into a well-paying industry. As programs extended beyond the computer screen and into real life, the scope of this intellectual-property law expanded as well.

This strong IP ownership funneled capital into Silicon Valley, as the creators of apps, smartphones, and other gadgetry (and then, the massive tech corporations buying out their competitors and their copyrights) were the only business in town. Big Tech’s deregulation continued during the reign of George W. Bush, and was then given an injection of adrenaline under the country’s most tech-friendly president. Whether this access, and presumable clout, by Big Tech was proactively welcomed in by the Obama White House, or if this was simply the White House responding to its growing power, is up for debate. But it occurred during a time when tech officially raided the real world.

Since the DMCA views the computer components in “smart” devices as proprietary information, if you want to fix your “smart machine,” you’re stuck taking it to the dealer instead of a cheaper, third-party repair person. Combined with their ability to cease customer support and updates when they want, tech corporations, this means, hold a monopoly over their product and its lifespan. They not only decide how much their products sell for, but how much it costs to fix them, and how long they even can be fixed.

Well, so what? These “smart” appliances are all cheap enough that we can wear them into obsolescence and replace the old ones with new ones. Generational upgrades are always annoying, but we already do it with phones and laptops. It’s not the end of the world.

Until it is.

Electronic waste, or “e-waste,” is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the world. According to a 2017 report by the United Nations:

In 2016, 44.7 million metric tonnes of e-waste were generated, an increase of 3.3 million metric tonnes, or 8 per cent, from 2014. Experts foresee e-waste increasing a further 17 per cent to 52.2 million metric tonnes by 2021.

Why? Low recycling rates, with new innovations rapidly supplanting the old. This rate will only pick up as the “smart” home functions worse more quickly, as the price to fix the items remains high due to the companies’ monopolies.

Picture: A bridge again over the Bering Strait, but now made of old fridges and TV that couldn’t connect to the new internet. A mountain of crushed cars rivaling a Great Pyramid. Metal alloys from multiple generations of Amazon Echos leaking their toxicity into your drinking water.

There’s hope to solving the third-party repair issue, as “right-to-repair” bills — which would require manufacturers to make information and parts available to outside repairers — are now working their way through state legislatures. But the other problems likely require a more comprehensive approach.

While tech companies now face backlash following Cambridge Analytica and other scandals, deregulation is still woven throughout Washington’s ideology, forcing “conscientious consumers” into the role of environmental activists, our last bastion of hope. It’s one of capitalism’s greatest tricks. Waste will be an issue as long as production favors a supply-side approach — that is, “make it all and let buyers sort it out.” (Commercial fishing gear is one of the biggest contributors to ocean pollution, but plastic straws are the campaign du jour.) And we’ll move onto buying or not buying something else to save the world — maybe it’ll connect to the internet.

In the meantime, I’ll wait for our TV to finally delink from the internet for good, to mirror my own brain’s deterioration from “smart” to “dumb,” and to finally have an excuse to use all those DVDs I’ve been hoarding.

Smart Homes Will Pollute the World, and Then We’ll Die