At The Restart Project, our favourite – and surprisingly uncommon – message is:
We were amused to have dozens of friends and supporters sending us the Phonebloks video a few weeks ago. It is a very compelling concept for a modular, upgradeable mobile phone – inspired by Legos and very well communicated. It is a great idea, but it will remain a charming design fiction until a whole lot of things change in the electronics industry.
We also began to ask ourselves what made the Phonebloks video so popular. Clearly people are ready to support a rethink of the way electronics are designed and manufactured. But we also began to ask ourselves about Phonebloks: to capture the public imagination, must we focus on a product, a new thing?
Is it actually possible to capture the public’s imagination with a message of emancipation from the new? With a message of “here, let’s try this” instead of “here let’s buy this”?
The jury is still out. (And someday we will hopefully make a video that is just as catchy as Phonebloks’.)
In the meantime, you can join our “ethical mobile mob” by extending the life of your mobile, and sharing this message with the hashtag #ethicalmob. Based on our experience at Restart Parties, there is something hugely empowering about defeating the aging of our existing gadgets, whether by rooting them and installing a better performing operating system, or by learning to substitute the battery in a device not designed to be easy to open.
Taking control of your existing mobile goes beyond shiny new designs of futuristic products: do it now, without buying anything new.
Thanks to designer Blossom Carrasco for rendering our message so simply.
As Pascal said in https://twitter.com/P45C4L/status/456734259982921729, the danger of making a modular-based phone is that people will view the smaller modules as more disposable, not less. While I agree that is a possibility with Project Ara, I also have faith that Google, and their counterparts, will also preach the way of recycling. If, for example, a battery dies, it could be sent back to the manufacturer, the cell itself disposed of/recycled correctly and the remaining chassis could be used again, creating the same kind of effect as with commercial Gas sales at the moment: For the UK, you have to buy your first gas cylinder, or rent the cylinders. But when it comes to them running out, you return the cylinders and get new charged ones.
As usual, this involves a lot more communication/dedication than is normally accepted among consumers. That isn’t a criticism, its what we’ve come to expect from a world dominated by Apple (and now Samsung)’s 6-month-release-cycle habit. Which is part of the reason I refuse to buy either. Ara could be a turning point in consumerism, IF it is marketed in the right way, and IF (really big if) it is picked up on by ALL consumers. Its all well and good getting techies, nerd, geeks, whatever you want to call them, on side, but they are a tiny minority in a world dominated by ignorance and “Lets just get to the weekend”itis.
That is the challenge. If big enough (and reputable enough) names start fueling the fire of reusability, it will succeed. Which is why my opinion continues to be that Google are the right people for the task, of anyone. (I mean, lets face it, if Apple started preaching recycling, I certainly wouldn’t hold it with any weight!)
After a first look, Phoneblocks was so perfect and so clever. A bit of Lego, a bit of Transformer, some remix culture and a lot of the game-changing mythology of technology disruption made in ©alifornia. The pitch was touching so many sensitive points of our shared and collective ideas of what’s wrong with mobile device consumption, it was THE ethical answer no one had dared to come up with, and Google was about to do it. But it quickly started to look too good to be true. Like a well crafted branding and PR coup.
First, my understanding of mobile phone engineering was that improving performance and controlling waste wasn’t about modularity but rather about the idea of a better and deeper integration. Lots of engineers seemed to confirm this online. Have a look, for example, at this post explaining why modularity is actually so limitative. https://jjcm.org/blog/mac_pros_and_modularity/
In terms of design, this phone must obviously require more hardware to allow the packaged integration of each block with the base, ending up generating more waste than a normal phone, per unit. Then, how to balance the weight with all these extra connectors and plastic shells? How does this aspect limits the positioning of blocks, or the internal design specs? Once the battery is positioned, I’m sure the amount of placement possibilities are limited. Another idea with the phone block concept is that components can not only be replaced and shuffled around, but can also be increased in size. So without buying a new phone base, I guess something else has to visit the trash…
But my real concern with Ara lies somewhere else. I see the very notion of waste symbolically embedded deep within it. At the core of the concept. Some kind of junk-determinism proposed with an clever twist: “Streamed obsolescence to save Mother Earth”. Project Ara is like disposing of a dead body in different plastic bags over time. We’ve now found a way to accelerate the buying rate and replacement of our mobile phones without the guilty feeling. Because now, we have Modularity to take care of it.
I could have a wide blind spot here. As Eike said, this could be a turning point and lead to a better future. This modular/parts idea could also be, for example, about something else, bigger. Maybe about the internet of things, or wearables, or both. Going beyond the scope of mobile phones and aimed at providing connectivity to a completely new architectures of objects and contexts. Maybe looking at patents and Google’s history of acquisition can help understand the IP convergence behind this project.