Battling e-Waste: Is the Fairphone 2 the Way to Arm Yourself?
With the rise of technology for the masses, the manufacturing of the artifacts of these technologies came with two serious societal problems. Firstly, there are issues regarding the exploitation of a, for the Western world largely anonymous, labour force. Technological devices are full of rare elements that mostly come from mines that are located in Third World countries, and quite often from conflict areas, where warlords force inhabitants to work in mines. Further on in the production chain there are factory workers who make extremely long hours, often for little pay. This research area remains largely unattended in media studies, according to Seth Perlow (246). Thus, exploitation of labour forces, even in the form of slavery, is stimulated by the manufacturing of technological devices.
The second issue is that of electronic waste, or e-waste. When a device breaks, becomes obsolete or outdated, we simply replace it with a newer and better specimen. As Giles Slade remarked: “modern consumers tend to value whatever is new and original over what is old, traditional, durable, or used” (264-265). But what becomes of the old device? For the most part these archaic pieces of technology get thrown away, never to be thought of again. Juxtaposing the monuments that ancient Egyptians built, and objects that are created in modern production processes, Slade points towards the irony of this phenomenon. While the Egyptians wanted their buildings to last forever, things are now made to break (7). Not all consumers know that these outdated devices often get shipped to, again, Third World countries, where they may end up in a landfill. The leaking of heavy metals can cause grave health issues for the population in these countries. This approaches the thinking of Jussi Parikka, when he writes about “new materialism” (2012). Parikka states that we have to start thinking differently about materialism. Materiality, for Parikka, does not just entail machines, “solids”, “things” or “objects”, but can be though of as “fluid” (98). Objects don’t just have a operationality, they are part of “long messy networks” (98) where matter is constantly transformed into other matter. And in the case of technology, in the end matter usually gets transformed into dirty matter: toxic waste.
In 2013, the Dutch company Fairphone already tried to combat the first issue by releasing a phone that was free of materials gathered from conflict areas. With the release of their new phone, the Fairphone 2, the Amsterdam-based company addresses the second issue described above as well.
A Phone for a Better World
The Fairphone 2 is marketed as the world’s first modular smartphone. As the video above shows, the phone can be disassembled so individual components can be replaced and/or upgraded. This feature, the company argues, will extend the phone’s lifespan, and (together with making customers aware of safe recycling) will limit e-waste. By releasing the Fairphone 2 the company has beaten Google, who are working on their own modular phone, as well as the upcoming Finnish Puzzlephone, to the punch. Fairphone wants to have a positive impact on the world, by focusing on “Mining, Design, Manufacturing, Lifecycle and Social Entrepreneurship“, and wants to “spark discussions and debate around the fairer production of mobile phones“. When you buy a Fairphone you are not just buying a phone, you’re joining a social movement.
Even though the company’s aims are noble, and its political message is one to applaud, certain issues arise when we think about some of the details.
Issues with the Fairphone 2
The phone has 2 gigabytes of RAM and will be shipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. The same processor is also build into phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the HTC One (M8), both more than a year old. This means that, although the Snapdragon 801 is still adequate, the processor lags way behind current flagship models. Even though individual components can be replaced, neither the processor, nor the RAM module, can be upgraded. Since the processor is already not of a top tier level, the Fairphone will become outdated faster than its current rivals. This would not be such a big problem if it wasn’t for the phone’s pricetag: the Fairphone will cost €525. Consumers in the Western world will be hesistant to buy an outdated phone, when one can get better alternatives for the same price, even though the manufacturer’s business ethics are of a higher standard. The price tag is not only a problem for consumers in the Western world. The largest upcoming markets for smartphones are in the Third World (e.g. India and countries in Africa). Here people are mostly interested in low end smartphones, which obviously have a lower price than flagship models. Next to issues regarding the processor, the phone packs a low capacity battery (2420 mAh). A battery that has to be charged more often, will also have to be replaced earlier. This means that the consumer has to put in even more money into their phone.
Even though the price tag, combined with the fact that the processor and RAM module can not be upgraded, are serious obstacles for making the world’s first modular phone a huge succes, perhaps we have to get used to paying more for more durable technology. Because in the end, fairness will have to come with a price. Modularity will definitely be the future of mobile devices, but consumers might be better off waiting for better phones.
“Electronic Waste.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Parikka, Jussi. 2012. ‘New Materialism as Media Theory: Medianatures and Dirty Matter’, Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 9: 95–100
Seth Perlow, ‘On Production for Digital Culture: iPhone Girl, Electronics Assembly, and the Material Forms of Aspiration’, Convergence 17.3 (2011): 245-269.
Slade, Giles. Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2006. PDF.
Vidal, John. “Toxic ‘e-waste’ Dumped in Poor Nations, Says United Nations.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited, 14 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2015.
Y Guru, Y. “2015 to Raise Hopes for Budget Smartphones.”ETTelecom.com. The Economic Times, 30 Dec. 2015. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.