Owning Fewer Devices Isn’t Always Better for the Environment
Without repairable gadgets, device convergence won’t save the planet.
Loyal readers of Microprocessing may remember that, about a month ago, I bought an AlphaSmart Neo 2, a 2000s-era word processor with a small, six-line LCD screen. It does nothing but type. Though my experiment so far has been a successful one (the amount I am writing on this thing… folks, the difference is incredible), I feel a little bit guilty for relying on wasteful consumerism to help me get the job done.
Before I bought the Neo 2 I already had two devices — a laptop and a smartphone — that could have not only assisted me in writing a book, but also done the job of dozens of other gadgets they’ve replaced. I’ve been under the general impression that, all in all, fewer devices means a healthier environment. Several persuasive articles have made this very argument, including one in Wired that makes the case that this consolidation, known as “device convergence,” has helped “save the planet” through “dematerialization.” Six products in one means fewer products altogether, which means less consumerism, which means a lower demand for resources, less energy consumed, and a happier planet.
It’s a compelling and hopeful argument, and it made me feel worse about buying my AlphaSmart. It’s also probably not true. Despite the fact that one modern device can do the work of a dozen or more devices of yore, the iPhone is not saving the planet, according to numerous researchers I spoke to for this piece. It potentially could — and I’ll get to that in a moment — but right now, it doesn’t.
The diversity of products that have been shrunken into our smartphones or laptops is pretty astonishing. As historian Steve Cichon pointed out in a 2014 HuffPost piece, a 1991 RadioShack ad makes that consolidation incredibly clear. “There are 15 electronic gizmo type items on this page, being sold from America’s Technology Store. Thirteen of the 15 you now always have in your pocket,” he writes. The ad depicts a “phone answerer” ($49.95), a VHS camcorder ($799), a deluxe portable CD player ($159.95), an AM/FM clock radio ($13.88), and a “microthin calculator” ($4.88), among other products.