THESEUS'S LAPTOP: modularity and the evolution of tech

A simple way to shrink e-waste AND the amount of money we spend on electronics.

THESEUS'S LAPTOP: modularity and the evolution of tech
Photo by Umberto on Unsplash

How many times have you had to throw away or replace an electronic device because one small part of it was no longer working?

For me, it’s been at least five times, probably more. One laptop and at least two phones went in the trash because of screens that no longer worked properly and two more laptops got tossed because of a single malfunctioning key on the keyboard. (I still have nightmares about trying to write copy on a deadline with a broken “P” or “O” key. The loss of “P” was somewhat manageable for the two weeks it took for me to get a replacement computer. The loss of “O” was… not.)

In all cases, I was told that it would be cheaper and more effective to buy a new computer or phone than to try and repair the older one that was no longer working. This lack of repairability, and the fact that one small malfunctioning element reduced the whole thing to garbage, has always driven me crazy. Just because certain components of a device may become outmoded or stop working properly, that doesn’t mean the entire device should need to be replaced!

… Especially when you consider that 20-50 million metric tons of e-waste are disposed of worldwide every year – AND that e-waste is responsible for 70% of all toxic waste on the planet.

(It becomes especially frustrating when you consider that much of what is called “e-waste” isn’t really garbage at all but electronic parts and materials that can readily be reused or recycled. And that the only reason why these resources haven’t been reused or recycled much before now is because industry leaders decided it wasn’t profitable enough to do so, regardless of the global impact.)

The good news is, in recent years there has been a bigger push to make our tech devices more sustainable and repairable, so they DON’T end up in the landfill.

(AND so consumers aren’t forced to spend considerable money buying replacement products when we shouldn’t have to.)

Just this spring, the European Parliament backed draft legislation to improve product durability and sustainability and put an end to greenwashing and other misleading claims. Similar movements to legislate better product repairability and sustainability are underway in the US and Canada and other regions. Here’s hoping the laws that get passed have teeth and are able to shrink our resource use and e-waste while ensuring we can maintain our technological capacity and capabilities.

The “Ship of Theseus” – but for laptops and smartphones

One fairly obvious way to increase the life of a product while cutting down on e-waste and helping consumers’ pocketbooks is to increase the modularity of the device – so that it’s easier to swap out the different parts of it to upgrade its functionality and extend its life and usefulness.

Imagine buying a laptop or smartphone – or even a car – and being able to easily replace any of its individual components whenever you want to improve its performance.

Now imagine what it would mean for your budget to no longer have to spend $2,000 - $3,000 on new electronics every few years but  only $200-$300 on the parts that needed replacement or upgrading. Sweet, right?

What you would end up with is a device that never really dies but is forever being upgraded and improved – the tech version of the “Ship of Theseus” (a famous thought experiment which asks if, over many years, every plank, rope, nail and other material that comprises the ship of Theseus eventually gets replaced, is it still the same ship or a different one altogether?). The technology becomes more of a function and less of a "thing."  

The future is modular (hopefully)

Unsurprisingly, most tech companies have been slow to adopt a modular way of thinking. They want people to be spending thousands of dollars on their products all the time. That’s how they generate maximum profit for their shareholders. This obviously is a paradigm that needs to change if we want to create a tech industry that works for the planet as opposed to a small handful of people.

So, how do we create this kind of paradigm change? Through social pressure, government legislation, and our economic choices. We have to use our full power as citizens, consumers, and community members to compel governments and business at all levels to do what's necessary to speed our transition to greater modularity and shrink the amount of e-waste we create.  

One recent example of government legislation promoting greater modularity is the 2022 law passed by the European Council that made USB-C the universal charging cable for phones in the European Union. The more devices use the same charging cable, the fewer cables people will need, which is good for the planet and our wallets. (Not to mention the convenience of having to pack only one cable whenever you're out and about.)

What can we do as individuals and communities to help accelerate the transition?

Here are some thoughts:  

  • Familiarize yourself with the concept of modularity
  • Learn about product sustainability and repairability initiatives in your area and do what you can to support them.
  • Talk to or write your local politicians about the importance of pushing for legislation that promotes greater product sustainability and repairability.
  • Support companies that are already creating modular products, such as Framework, with its fully modular laptop and Fairphone with its “e-waste neutral” smartphone and headphones. (Lenovo and HP may also deserve some credit for their efforts to make some of their laptops more repairable as well, though not as fully modular or upgradeable as Framework’s models.)

Above all, talk about the concept of modularity and product durability with your friends and family so more people understand the benefits that modular technology could have on their lives and the planet. The more people saying, "Yes! This is what we want," and pressuring politicians to take action while supporting modular companies with their purchasing choices, the faster we will be able to shrink our impact on our climate systems and the planet while sustaining our technological capabilities.

Going circular doesn’t have to mean going back to the Stone Ages

"I miss the Internet."

To survive as a species and prevent the further collapse of our ecosystems, we are absolutely going to cut down on the amount of “stuff” we produce and the waste we create. But that doesn’t have to mean sacrificing our valuable tech tools or denying them to others.  If ever there was a time where humanity needed powerful information and communication platforms and computer-driven data crunching and logistics planning tools that can help us solve big problems and facilitate huge changes to the way we do things, it’s NOW.

(And until our electronic devices are fully modular and we can easily and interchangeably swap different components from one device to the next to maximize functionality while minimizing the impact on the planet, I wouldn't consider our species to be particularly “technologically evolved” at all.)

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