Friday, October 7, 2011

Steve Jobs and consumerism

I will admit that I sucked my breath in and was shocked and saddened when I heard of Steve Jobs passing.  He revolutionized not one, but many industries. Computers, music, magazines, books and movies will not be quite the same since Jobs' created hardware, software and a vision for easy and elegant access (and of course one where Apple took a healthy cut of the profits).  People with such a vision come along rarely and are genuinely transformative.

I've been an avid Apple consumer since that wonderful 1984 Superbowl commercial.  I saw it and was impressed with the message, but bought that first boxy Macintosh not because of the commercial, but because I really didn't want a DOS machine.  I collected, managed, and analyzed my honors research data on red-tailed hawks in Boulder County, Colorado on that Mac.  I bought a case for it and dragged it was after all a portable computer.  I wrote my honors thesis on that Mac.  In graduate school I upgraded the guts to make it a Mac+ before I started a tradition of using Mac laptops.  I still have that original Mac along with a lot of other Macs (my lab is almost all Mac).  

I bought an early iPod which I mostly used for research--it's a great way to broadcast vocalizations to animals when conducting behavioral experiments. 

When I finally got a cell phone two years ago (I resisted for a LONG time), I got an iPhone.  I share Jobs' obsession with clean design and clean function (I'm a minimalist at heart) and, while I use non-Apple products too, the Apple products 'just work' and they feel great to use. I loved that there is no guide to using the iPhone...that you just figure it out intuitively.

Yet, the consumerism that Jobs' drove so well is killing us.  Our computers, iPhones, and iPads quickly become obsolete (I have quite a collection of old computers and printers, hard drives, zip disks (remember those?)...). 

While this planned obsolescence (or is it just rapid evolution in a desired market?) may be good for the economy and it certainly creates a lot of jobs in China, where much of these products are manufactured, I'm not so sure it's good for the environment.  Between mining the rare earth metals that are required for touch screens, toxic chemicals used in circuit board manufacturing, and shipping these parts and products all around the Earth (to name three parts of the manufacturing process), considerable energy and natural resources are used.  

Does $200 really reflect the ecological cost of an iPhone (heck, you can now get an 'old' 3GS free with an AT&T contract!).  

Does the consumer culture that requires us to upgrade annually or biannually (should I really feel inadequate with my 3GS?), and the planned obsolescence built in to drive more consumerism (why oh why did the Mac OS Lion update kill Rosetta?).  

Does the throw away electronic society really benefit us?  These are tough questions because these products have been game changers.  

Is it better to print books or read them on an iPad?  What if all publishing shifted to ebooks?  Server farms are using more and more energy annually and the electronics required to read them must be regularly replaced and upgraded.  I bet the sum total of that energy, when added up and summed over the lifetime of a printed book, exceeds the ecological footprint of printing a book.

While I am very sad at the loss of true visionary (and at such a young age), more than ever we need other visionaries that will help us wean ourselves away from a culture of consumerism and help us re-focus on those true things that lead to welfare and happiness. Ultimately, I believe that consumerism is not the path to happiness, but stronger social bonds are.

Have a dinner party to strengthen those bonds and raise a glass to Steve Jobs and his revolutionary visions, but talk about creating a new revolutionary vision, a more sustainable one that we all can enjoy.

No comments:

Post a Comment