Toxic waste is the business model of Big Tech

Once upon a long time ago—maybe 30-40 years ago—things were made to last. Things were made to repair. You could take apart, recycle and reuse any piece of electronics, component by component. “We had radio valves and transistors, and then integrated circuits,” computer scientist and author, Andy Farnell, explained to me. Andy is a brilliant engineer who has done pioneering work in sound design. He also owns a ‘dumb’ phone that is ten years old. Andy has written a book called Digital Vegan, which explains how you can do so much more with so much less technology. Clearly, Andy will not be getting any LinkedIn offers to go work in PR for Big Tech.

The components in those old-school, very ancient electronics were “soldered together using lead or tin on the board,” Andy explains. (One of Steve Jobs’ first jobs was soldering electronics.) “What would happen in the old days is that you would strip down electronics to reuse the components. So, we would take off integrated circuits. We could take out a camera element, which has got an SPI or an I2C bus, a standard kind of connector, and put that aside for use in constructing something else. So, electronics hobbyists and electronics repair people have always had this relationship with electronics—you can take it apart and you can reuse the sub-assemblies.”

But then along came super-modernity, cutting-edge design and constant, relentless innovation. We became masters of waste, of creating a world of plastic, where product design becomes laser-focused on the trash can, the bin, the landfill, the dump. In those old days, things were designed to last. Who wants that? In those old days, things were designed so that they could be disassembled and their components reused. Who wants that? In those old days, materials were valued. Waste was actually seen as a bad thing. Who wants that?

Now, we growth-hack our way to quick riches through maximizing waste. The more you examine modern technology, the more you examine a trash heap. The clever managers of Big Tech discovered that the best way of making ridiculous amounts of money—next to creating monopolies and not paying any taxes—was in the business model of trash. This business model is not about recycling trash. This business model is about creating trash that cannot be recycled. The faster you can get fools to dump ‘old’ products and buy ‘new’ ones, the more money you can make. The idea is to speed up the product life cycle until it is on acid. Maintenance is for suckers. Repair is for suckers. The real cash money is in trashing the old and flogging the new.

Whatever old products are recycled are recycled in the crudest possible ways, returning the minimum amount of usable materials. They are shredded and smashed, burned with blow torches or soaked in acid baths at the hands of the poorest in the poorest countries, well out of sight of the modern world that used and quickly disposed of these planned-obsolescence marvels.

“Digital cameras, phones, tablets, laptops—this is a different kind of e-waste,” Andy explains. “Nobody is going to bother to try and reclaim that at a component level. So, what happens to it? Lots of it is getting shipped to where the labor costs and the environmental regulations are low enough for them to be processed in an economically viable way, as they would say.”

Podcast: World Wide Waste
Interviews with prominent thinkers outlining what can be done to make digital as sustainable as possible.
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