Could a smartphone last for a decade?

We often hear that if we want to reduce the impact of our electronic devices, we should ignore the siren song of the mobile phone companies and keep our handset for as long as possible. But that’s not always so easy to do in practice.

Perhaps you’ve tried it. Did it get slower and slower? Did you find that the battery life vanished after a single phone call, or didn’t get you through the day? Did you have to put up with a scratched camera lens, or chipped glass? Maybe certain apps didn’t work any more. Eventually all the little inconveniences add up and you have to replace the phone, perhaps far earlier than you’d expect.

Obviously a phone is an advanced piece of technology that, as a portable device, is subjected to more than its fair share of wear and tear. But there are simple solutions to some of these problems. If the battery isn’t performing well any more, why not change the battery? That used to be possible. Now many companies weld the battery in, or don’t make it possible to open the phone at all. If the battery fails, the whole phone fails.

Same with the camera, or the headphone jack, or the charging slot. If something goes wrong with one element of the phone, there’s no way to fix it. As for speed, perhaps you tried speeding up the phone by removing apps that you don’t use, only to find that there are a couple of dozen that can’t be deleted. The manufacturer, in their wisdom, insists that they are essential to your life and wellbeing.

It’s almost as if the phone companies don’t want your handset to last…

Disposability has always been an important strategy for industrialists. “Ending is better than mending” is one of the phrases that children are indoctrinated with in their sleep in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. If Huxley was able to satirise consumerist messaging back in 1932, there’s clearly nothing new about the idea.

A generation later, Vance Packard set out nine strategies that he saw businesses using to keep people spending in wealthy countries, in his book The Waste Makers. Without them, markets would reach saturation and nobody would make any more money. He describes how the economy grows through throwing things away, through obsolescence – or the perceived obsolescence of fashion. Writing in the 1960s, he cites business journals in which these things are discussed openly. “We are obligated to work on obsolescence as our contribution to a healthy, growing society” says a commentator in Retailing Daily.

This kind of philosophy only makes sense within a very narrow frame, where making money is the only thing that matters. Among the many things that don’t matter are customer satisfaction, carbon emissions, the value of materials, the pollution from disposal, or the health and dignity of those in the supply chain. For anyone who does care about these things, this mindset of ‘obsolescence as progress’ is deeply harmful. It’s a philosophy of greed, with no regard to stewardship of the environment, nor respect for workers.

Can it be curbed? Technology advances, and there has to be room for improvement. But surely there’s a healthier balance to be achieved, where objects like smartphones are designed to be owned and used and repaired?

Among those making a difference are Fairphone, who we have profiled before on Joy in Enough. They have designed their phone to be modular and easy for users to fix themselves. It even comes with a small screwdriver, highlighting the point to every owner that they can do this – it is theirs to look after.

Another project to look out for is the Ten Year Smartphone, a tongue in cheek campaign launched recently to raise standards of repair. Organised by Right to Repair, it highlights some of the progress made in places that are driving up standards on repairability – see the new ratings being adopted in France for example. Right to Repair have a series of proposals on that and a letter to sign.

Can we imagine a smartphone that lasts a decade? Perhaps not right now, but maybe one day.

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