Destroying Ownership, Reducing Waste

Sometime last year, my trusty iPod Touch died on me after a series of unfortunate events. To cut a long story short, the most obvious diagnosis at the time was that the battery had discharged completely and was in need of a replacement. Like all devices with “non-removable” batteries, this is probably one of the worst possible outcomes because I had to involve an expert to get the job done.

Whatever impressions I had that I could just buy a replacement battery and do it myself were quickly shattered. iFixit, the DIY mecca for these things, gave my device a miserable 3/10 score for repairability. The  complicated teardown guide further confirmed my fate – only tech senseis should dare to crack it open.

The way forward was to contact one of the few certified Apple product resellers / service providers in Nairobi to find out the cost of a spare battery + replacement service. The most popular of these resellers, who prided themselves in providing the same facilities and atmosphere as any Apple Store in the world, sent me their reply as follows:
iPod_Replacement

That’s right. According to these jokers, the most logical solution to a dead battery is to throw away the device and buy a brand new one! Never mind that you can get a replacement battery online for as little as $15. My first reaction was outrage. Using the same logic, if your car gets two flat tires, and the most reasonable thing to do would be to make your way back to the showroom and buy another car? Nigga, please!

Outrage then simmered down to a pitiful understanding – this attitude must come from the fact that it’s an Apple product, a premium device meant for people with more than just a few zeros in the bank. A twisted sort of requirement that I, as the owner of a device associated with a certain status, should take the course of action apparently expected of a person with the status currently attributed to me.

Understanding quickly faded into bewilderment. Were these folks just handing me the cold, hard, technical truth? Was this how Apple had designed this device? To be thrown away and completely replaced as soon as possible? Is that the subliminal message my device’s blank screen was meant to relay? Why else did it have to have such complicated and delicate innards that venturing to replace the battery risked damaging other components?

Why would anyone, irrespective of means, condone such waste? On the other hand, when it comes to things technology, aren’t we always throwing away stuff for the next best thing? Not having adequate answers, I resisted the idea of posting a rant about that response. Coming across this VPRO documentary recently is what has inspired me to at least make something out of it.

In The End of Ownership, architect Thomas Rau breaks things down beautifully. Why is it that your grandpa’s ancient vinyl player is in good working order today, while the MP3 player you bought last year is already dead? Why is it that every time a new iPhone is released, barely months after the latest one, it still sells in record numbers?

It’s simple, really. Back in the day, products were modeled around providing solutions and therefore manufacturers invested in functionality, durability and quality. Soon, the manufacturer was confronted with a complication – if everyone has a great product that serves them forever, the market for that product will eventually cease to exist.

Manufacturers dealt with this complication by quickly changing their approach from providing solutions to providing organized, time-sensitive problems. Products now go out of the factory with the expectation that their performance will reduce over time (that window between a Samsung Galaxy S6 and S7) or with the expectation of a certain limited lifespan (reason why light bulbs don’t last too long). The inevitable outcome of this strategy has been the creation of waste as an unintended by-product of consumption.

Thomas Rau proposes a paradigm shift in the manufacturer-consumer relationship from the provision of solutions/problems to the provision of a service. In such a system, the consumer wouldn’t need to buy a product to benefit from its functions. Instead, she would only pay for the service associated with the product. The manufacturer-cum-service-provider, being responsible for the maintenance of the product would take every measure to ensure that it is as efficient and as durable as possible so as not to incur unwanted costs. The manufacturer would also ensure as much of the product as possible is reusable, thereby minimising waste.

Of course, destroying unnecessary requirements of ownership would involve abandoning the extremely strong links between status, power, celebrity and property. That is what I see as the biggest challenge and the most interesting mystery. Imagining a world in which the use of the most efficient products of the highest quality was not necessarily pegged on financial means is pretty hard. Who would allow such awesomeness to exist?  Who in their right mind would allow everyone to have nice things? Epic thoughts right there. The documentary puts it in better words than I’m doing now.

Enjoy the documentary and check out the other great stuff VPRO have to offer on their YouTube channel.

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