If you’ve watched television at all recently, you’ve likely seen the ads: a friendly voiceover saying, “there’s nothing like that feeling of getting something new,” and the image of a man opening his new smartphone’s box—his face filled with rapturous glee, bathed in golden light, angelic music playing in the background. The advertisement is for Verizon Edge, a program that allows you, for a small fee, to dodge the wait for upgrade eligibility and switch over to a sleek, brand-new phone whenever your heart desires. Over the past several months, other cellular providers have been rolling out similar plans, aimed at catering to consumers’ ever more ravenous appetites for the new, the novel, and the cutting edge. AT&T’s Next program allows you to upgrade to a new phone once a year while T-Mobile’s Jump allows you to have this pleasure twice a year. “Two years is too long to wait for a new phone,” the T-Mobile Jump website boldly proclaims.
There are a few reasons why this particular development in smartphone marketing is disturbing. For one—I can’t help but see myself in these advertisements. I know how golden-faced-new-phone-guy feels—I’ve been there. And if you’ve purchased a smartphone in the past several years, you likely have been there, too. For whatever reason, the un-boxing of one of these small devices feels amazing—it gets those neurons firing and for a brief moment, you get to feel strangely cool as you parade your new technological marvel around town. Underneath all of this manic, technology-induced splendor, though, we all know that these feelings, at their core, are irrational. We know that it’s silly. However, these new programs and advertisements, some of the most blatant celebrations of rampant consumerism in recent memory, rationalize these feelings and allow us, like rats in a Skinner box, to indulge in our tech addictions on a whim.
This brings me to the second and probably most troublesome reason why this is disturbing. It makes smartphones, and any similar technology, essentially worthless. Although our little smartphones are tiny feats of extraordinary engineering, they can now be seen as disposable—capable of being switched out on a lark for something that will briefly placate our irrational (and unfortunately, quite human) desire for the new. This, coupled with the fact that most technology is already created with manufactured obsolescence in mind, makes for a system that is extraordinarily, needlessly wasteful—an environmentally taxing contribution to our ever-growing pile of technological waste.
As with many technological issues facing our world today, this problem starts with design, but it can also be solved through design. Currently, there are no phones (or computers, or cameras, or tablets) on the market that are explicitly designed to last. On the contrary, the need for constant income and consumer interest prevents many companies from investing in such notions and, instead, they manufacture a two-year (or shorter) shelf-life into their products. If we’re trying to prevent waste and help create a more sustainable culture, this is clearly not helping. This is why, when my Facebook and Twitter feed started to get overwhelmed with links to Phonebloks, I was beyond happy and more than a little bit relieved. A complete breath of fresh air amongst all of this smartphone upgrade hoopla, Phonebloks presents an idea that stands at sharp contrast to our current state of affairs: a phone that lasts forever. (Sort of.)
The problem that Phonebloks attempts to solve is the needless disposal of technological devices when just one or a few of its elements wears out or becomes to outdated. Oftentimes, as is the case with most smartphones and computers, the only thing that really needs to be upgraded is a small part—a processor chip, a broken camera lens, a damaged audio jack. Still, the current systems in place make it wildly difficult (if not entirely impossible) to switch out these parts, forcing a necessity to constantly upgrade. What Phonebloks offers is an easy and remarkably simple way to swap out old parts and customize your phone. Comprised of a series of blocks, each with a specifically sanctioned purpose (battery, screen, processor, speaker), one need only change out one of these lego-like fittings in order to stay on the cutting edge.
Currently, Phonebloks is still just an idea—the man behind it, the Netherlands-based Dave Hakkens, is slowly gathering support for the project and hoping to partner with designers, engineers, and developers who will make it into a reality. Still, just the idea in itself is as timely as it is necessary. As we careen ever more rapidly towards irreparable environmental damage, we need ideas like this—ideas that shed light on the folly of our purchasing ways and the un-sustainability of current systems. Right now, the world seems poised and ready for an idea and a product like Phonebloks. The question is, will the world accept it? Consumers today (and I am absolutely including myself in this) are drawn not just to functional technology but fashionable technology. So much of our purchase logic expands beyond rational need and into the tricky, elusive realm of desire. Will Phonebloks, if it ever does come to fruition, provide consumers with the same sense of desire? Are we ready for it? Are you?
As the Phonebloks concept has gained traction over the last few weeks, these questions and many more have arisen. While some analysts claim that such a phone wouldn’t appeal to consumers, others say that, should it be produced, it would be prohibitively expensive. Dave Hakkens, the creator of Phonebloks, was able to take some time from his no doubt busy schedule to chat with us about some of these issues and his future plans for Phonebloks. Check out the interview after the jump! —Max
What inspired you to pursue Phonebloks?
I’ve got an old canon compact camera which broke, so I wanted to fix it. When I took it apart, I found all these nice, perfectly good components like a display, flash, battery, and little gear. Everything was still good except the lens motor. I looked for a spare part, but Canon basically told me to get a new one (like always). And then I realized this is how it always goes with electronics—if it’s broken you throw it away you don’t fix it. When you have a flat tire you don’t throw away your bike. You fix it. This method creates a lot of e-waste. I wanted to see if I could bring any help in fixing it.
So much of the reason that people are constantly upgrading their phones has to do with fashion over functionality. Consumers are often obsessed with whatever is new or cutting edge and recent programs from cellular providers, aimed at allowing consumers to upgrade to a new phone at their own volition, seem to be catering to this. What makes you think that the world is ready for a “forever” phone? Do you think that consumers will be open to the idea?
Well, that was the part of our goal with testing it out. I’m ready for it, but I wanted to see of other people and companies were ready for it. It seems like they are But, indeed, they might have to change the way in which they currently use their phones.
Many electronics manufacturers and retailers offer recycling and trade-in programs for “old” phones. Is there evidence that suggests that these programs aren’t being taken advantage of and/or aren’t as sustainable as they should be? What makes Phonebloks superior to this model?
Those programs are great, no doubt about it. But the truth is that most phones end up in the normal trash and not properly recycled. Even if they are recycled, you’ve still lost all the energy in making those products. A two year lifetime is just too short.
Manufactured obsolescence is a huge problem in all facets of design, not just mobile phones. People often replace their computers, cars, and televisions long before their actual lifespan is up and occasionally, these products’ lifespans are intentionally limited by the manufacturer. Are there plans to expand the Phonebloks model beyond mobile phones?
I would absolutely love that! In fact, I think that’s one of my main biggest interests as a designer. But…first the phone.
One of the more problematic things about mobile operating systems today is that they’re closed environments—there is little compatibility between operating systems and customizability can only go so far. In addition to creating hardware that follows the “open source” model, are there plans to create software that is customizable in the same way?
Honestly, before starting this I was mostly interested in the hardware, not the software. But we gotten a lot of developers and OS engineers that want to work on this topic and develop something amazing. So if the time will come, it won’t be just a OS, it will be something special that suits the phone.
While the majority of people seem thrilled at the idea of a more long-lasting phone, some critics argue that a thing like Phonebloks would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture and buy. Do you have a response for these detractors?
I’ve always believed in an honest price— if it is more expensive, then that’s just the way it is. Like fair trade products or organic food, sure it’s more expensive, but you are also helping to solving a problem.
Phonebloks has generated a whirlwind of public support and excitement since it was announced. Were you expecting such a strong response?
My original goal was to gather 500 people and currently we’re at over 800,000. So no, did not expect it!
As of right now, you’ve reached your social outreach goal for the project. What comes next? Is there a goal for when you’d like to see Phonebloks on the market?
Basically this [social discussion] was my goal. But now I’ve got so many people and companies that are willing to help, I’m figuring out what would be the best next step to take. But since I wasn’t prepared for all this positive response, I still need to figure it out.
We can’t wait!