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The Progress App

It is a familiar story by now. A perfectly functioning iPod with a jagged crack across the glass. I take it to an Apple dealer and am told they don’t fix such things and that, in general, it would be “cheaper” just to buy a new one.

And the new one is even better, featuring Bells And Whistles 2.0 and a countdown app that will ring an alarm in exactly 18 months when my new device is hopelessly out of date.

After getting the same story at several places, I finally find a place that will replace my faithful friend’s cracked visage. And, as I was told, it would have been “cheaper” to get a new one. Feeling like a fool, I make the stupidly uneconomical choice of buying about 40 square centimeters of glass for the price of one of the latest achievements of Western civilization.

Of course, buying a new iPod is only “cheaper” if one ignores the cost of dumping the old one into the landfill and cleaning up (eventually) or paying for the health consequences of the toxins that will inevitably leak out of it. And if we don't count the lost opportunity costs of the resources consumed. Much has been written about how modern gadgets are intentionally “designed for the dump” (see the video above), but no one seems to be taking this seriously.

In an article pegged to the holiday buying binge, “The New York Times” reported that Americans alone own over 3 billion electronic devices and the turnover rate for these toys is 400 million units a year. Less than 14 percent of them are recycled at all. And one recycling scheme featured in the article is from retailer Best Buy, which will accept your items and even give you a nice gift certificate so you can turn around and buy a new one. Are the electronics being re-cycled, or are the consumers? has a similarly bleak report – 140 million mobile phones are discarded in the United States each year and just 10 percent are recycled at all. One cell phone contains enough toxins to contaminate 40,000 gallons of water, but just 24 states have laws banning them from being dumped in landfills. (Sadly, we can't eat them yet, but Japan is working on that.)

At the same time, the life cycle of each product gets shorter and shorter. The iPod touch has come out with a new, “improved!” model each September since 2007. The iPhone 4 has rendered the 3G, which just a few weeks ago was all the rage, obsolete. The iPad 2 (two cameras! USB port!) is on its way in April, probably timed in such a way as to allow Apple to come out with the iPad 3 in time for next Christmas.

A lot has been written about the promise and pitfalls of technology as a solution to poverty and underdevelopment. The “Boston Review” recently published a provocative series of essays on this very topic, including one by Nicholas Negroponte, who heads the well-known One Laptop Per Child project. Two million laptops distributed in 40 countries and counting.

Negroponte writes:

Two million laptops and an entire netbook industry later, you do not have to take my word for it. Every pupil in Uruguay has a connected laptop. Peru and Rwanda are soon to follow. Peru has almost a million laptops, nearly all of them in the most remote villages. Our next country, we hope, is Afghanistan, where the United States spends two billion dollars per week on war and two million on education. Huh? Were President Obama to move 0.5 percent from column A to column B, every child could have a connected laptop in less than eighteen months.

Impressive numbers, of course, but they don’t really show whether such projects are doing anything to “end poverty.” Isn’t it possible that distributing bicycles to everyone in Peru or Rwanda or Uruguay might be even more effective at reducing isolation, stimulating local economic development, making it safer and faster for children to go to school, improve access to health care, and so on? Maybe that’s a technology that can really reduce poverty.

A Greenpeace e-waste display in China.
Who is going to upgrade all those kids to One Laptop Per Child 2.0 when the developed world moves on and the skills they are gaining with their old laptops are about as useful as being able to operate an eight-track player? French journalist Jean-Christophe Laurence has made this funny, but disturbing video of kids confronted with a kaleidoscope of technologies that were the cutting edge at one time or another over the last three or four decades (h/t to RFE/RL’s Tangled Web blog).

Environmental activist Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) described the dilemma in a short essay on “progress” that is worth quoting at some length:

2009 had cooler cell phones than 2008. 2010 has cooler cell phones than 2009. 2011 will have even cooler cell phones than 2010.

That won't be progress. Year in, year out, we have cooler cell phones. If it's the same year in, year out, how can it be progress? Because it's not actually progress. It's more of the same.

Ho hum. Another year goes by. Ho hum. Another year where some of the human race's best minds concentrate on making better cell phones.

What would constitute real progress?

Far away from us, one billion people in the world have no access to clean drinking water. Because of this, far away from us, a child dies of diarrhea every 15 seconds.

If I could choose, I would give up my Blackberry Curve and any other cell phone I've had or will have if it would mean no one died of thirst. I think most people feel that way. People have big hearts.

Ask the average person: Do you want to watch TV on your cell phone or save the world's children from dying of diarrhea? I know what they'd say. People are good.

Yet: The people we are proud of for having the smartest brains work, not on water, but on bringing us still better cell phones.

What would be real progress?

When we find a way to put our brains where our hearts are. When we find a way use our big brains to facilitate the desires of our big hearts.

When we find a way to concentrate on bringing clean drinking water to the billion people who don't have it instead of looking for a way to bring better TV reception to our cell phones.

That would be progress.