Sustainable electronics

January 3rd, 2013

While working on Music Makers of the World (and of course thanks to my work at helios), I often stumble over the complicated topic of sustainability in consumer electronics.

There’s a lot of talk about sustainability in general these days (to the point where the word itself stated to loose meaning due to the constant misuse), yet somehow there seems to be little interest for it of it in the field of consumer electronics. We could say that the very nature of of these products is unsustainable. Most have been designed to last only a few years, either because the marketing machine makes us want to buy a newer model, because the parts have been engineered to break or degrade quickly or because the ecosystem in which the device “lives” has changed its standards (this is often referred to as planned obsolescence).
Production is usually based in countries like China, where worker rights are still a very sketchy concept, and due to the production methods and logistics have a pretty heavy CO2 fingerprint.
Last but not least, electronic devices often contain very toxic substances and recycling them is in many cases problematic.

So far I think that it’s quite obvious that the unsustainability of consumer electronics is mainly a culturally rooted problem. The people in the industrialized western countries (the so called “the consumers”) have learned to treat these devices as something to consume, i.e. something you use, and throw away once performance starts to degrade. It should be noted at this point that performance, when talking about consumer electronics, is not only intended in a strictly practical sense, but in a more cultural one. A smartphone has to deliver a certain practical performance, by enabling the user to call people, surf the web and execute software at a decent speed, but also has to perform as a fashion and lifestyle object. Also many of the needs associated with them are often artificially created or enforced by the economic actors (mainly by means of marketing and advertising), which in turn enforces what could be called the obsolescence cycle.

I find it very interesting how the worldwide hacking and making movement (which of course is not strictly one movement) has the potential of indirectly influencing the perception of this whole topic.
For example: If you learn to hack a toy you will gain a completely different approach to electronic devices, the whole thing looses its “magic” and given a bit of experience you might even learn to repair things on your own (something the companies seem to fear most).

Among musicians (especially the ones that deal a lot with electronic instruments) there’s a lot of talk about G.A.S. (which stands for Gear Aquisition Syndrome). It’s quite common for people to buy a lot of devices, and sell many of them after a short time to buy some new ones. The phenomenon is not really negative from a sustainability point of view, since the gear just changes owner and usually gets used until it really won’t work anymore  If a device is built to last, it can have a lifetime well over 10 years (people still buy and sell equipment from the 70s). Open Hardware instruments, that come as D.I.Y. kits have the interesting side effect to increase the knowledge and relation to technology for people who build them (so for example it’s more likely that they will be able to service the devices themselves, or even provide repair services for fellow musicians) but it also radically changes the relationship with the object. Something you have built with your own hands, with a bit of hard work, stops to be something you just consume because you’ve somehow created it.
The good thing is that music and art have a strong communication-related part. If this changed relationship with technology can be communicated through one’s creative work, it will spread to other people, and we will slowly see a cultural change, which will positively impact the world.

To close this discussion, here’s an extract from an interview I’ve made with Patrick McCarthy from Roth Mobot in comic form (recently published by the magazine PILLS).

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