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Worn thin: the limits of a “logic of innovation”

In short order, we heard two disappointing developments in the gadget world. First, that Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 no longer features a user-replaceable battery, or waterproof coating, and no longer has upgradeable storage. Second, that Apple’s new MacBook has a soldered-down hard drive and no direct support for traditional USB dongles, essentially becoming an iPad with a keyboard.

Both the Samsung mobile and the Apple laptop have sacrificed any upgradability – and indeed potential for user ownership, maintenance and repair – for the sake of couple of millimetres.

We were lucky to catch a couple of employees of Samsung at Resource, a conference on the circular economy, and they seemed slightly uncomfortable when we questioned whether consumers really want “thin” above all else. They genuinely believed they were responding to consumer desires.

Last week, a Yougov survey in the US showed that across all demographics, people overwhelmingly valued battery life over “thin”. Numerous studies have backed the idea that people want battery life more than any other “innovation”. And debates on tech sites reveal similar sentiments.

Now discount this as “nomophobia” or an unhealthy fear of being out of mobile contact. And there may be something to that. But honestly, why should manufacturers or retailers care why people feel this way? And why do they seem to sideline this straight-forward desire in favour of “thin”? There may be some technical reasons in relation to batteries, and innovation in batteries. But we think it is deeper.

Top-level logics

We think it has something to do instead with a very dominant “logic of innovation” (as management professor Sid Winters calls it). Ever since Moore’s Law -the notion that circuit density and hence “device cleverness” would double every two years – set of a self-fulfilling race at Intel, the logic of miniaturisation has permeated the tech industry.

The reason Moore’s Law – a big idea – became reality is that Intel and other industry players have successfully enacted it, used it as a strategy and source of ambition. Miniaturisation is what Winters has dubbed a “top-level logic of innovation”, in effect a “high level driver of change” that allowed for the marshalling of huge capital and technical resources.

It’s not just about Jony Ive or Steve Jobs. The effort put into organising to keep up with Moore’s Law has shaped the electronics industry for decades prior to both.

Boundaries

But what happens when these logics start to push non-technical boundaries? We and others have noted – time and time again – that the incessant push to shrink and “improve” gadgets has made us mere automaton consumers, unable to service or upgrade our devices. This reinforces an accelerated “use and discard” cycle. Maybe frustration is not an issue for some, but we cannot afford to ignore the cost to the planet.

As the iPhone has gotten thinner, it’s carbon footprint has steadily increased. We wrote about how the carbon footprint of the iPhone 6 in manufacture alone is equal to one year’s emissions in the London boroughs of Westminster, Camden and Lambeth.

Scarcity rare earths
Table from the British Geological Society

Not to mention resources that simply cannot be recouped, even when mobiles are recycled. Less than 1% of rare earths in mobiles are recycled, and while we are far from gloom and doom scarcity scenarios, huge resources are dedicated to their mining, and increasingly communities will be affected by new mines.

According to Geology.com, mines in the US and Australia are increasing production and “India has been producing about 3% of the world’s supply for the past decade. Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, North Korea, Malaysia, and Vietnam are minor producers. As of 2013 rare earth assessments were underway in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Finland, Greenland, India, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Sweden, Tanzania, Turkey, and Vietnam.”

If history is any guide, affected communities in all of these countries will have a real struggle to guarantee that the benefits of these mines outweigh the environmental costs.

And looking beyond the environmental limits of miniaturisation, perhaps more interestingly, can this logic of miniaturisation exhaust itself in a social sense? What if the limits to miniaturisation result from irrational human desires not from (surmountable) technical issues?

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