Replaceable. But Sustainable?

by astanhaus

Writer’s note: originally submitted for McGill University’s New Media class with Professor Caroline Bem.

“Everyday we throw away millions of electronic devices because they get old and become worn out. But usually, it is only one of the components that causes the problem….electronic devices are not designed to last.”[1] This sets the stage for a description of Phonebloks, marketed as a sustainable, replaceable phone. Sterne describes the current market structure, explaining new media technologies “are designed to become obsolete after a short period of use…to make room for future profits, additional hardware sales, and performance upgrades.”[2] Phonebloks is marketed as the antithesis, for example a broken screen can be simply replaced with a new one.[3] Phonebloks has partnered with Motorola; their joint venture is called Project Ara.[4] Project Ara addresses Sterne’s concerns outlined in “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media,” marketed as a sustainable phone, minimizing electronic waste, but it may increase electronic waste.

Phonebloks uniquely addresses stylistic and technological obsolescence, which Sterne describes as a main cause of electronic waste. Curtly, Sterne notes, “Obsolescence is a nice word for disposability and waste.”[5] Stylistic obsolescence is when an object goes out of style; current marketing schemes turn stylistic obsolescence into planned obsolescence.[6] As for technological obsolescence, it is supposed to signal innovation, progress, and thereby necessity.[7] Most importantly, obsolescence is man-made, Sterne explains, we can “choose to sustain an object long after it would have begun to fall apart on their own.”[8] Phoedbloks is initially marketed with a revolutionary feature of being able to replace the broken part of your phone with a new one, instead of replacing the whole phone.  But, by  improving tiny bloks, instead of multiple aspects of a fully-integrated phone, the timeframe of technological and stylistic obsolescence could quicken and could create exponentially more electronic waste. And the Phonebloks does not address the issues of “backward compatibility.”[9] If bloks are rapidly improved and are not backward compatible, the owner is forced to upgrade their phone, blok by blok, creating equivalent electronic waste of purchasing phones in full.

Sterne notes the negative financial implications for a company producing a replaceable, sustainable new media device that will saturate the market and concludes that the people must act because capitalism will never create such a device on its own.[10] Sterne ends his article with an challenge, “It is up to academics, designers, policymakers, and artists to come up with convivial models of computing…We need digital hardware that is more democratic.”[11] Similarly, Phonebloks’ marketing video ends asking everyone to come together to signal to companies there is a “a need for a phone worth keeping.”[12] The parent company bankrolling Project Ara is the ideal Sterne described, a manufacturer more interested in long-term stability than short-term growth.[13] Google owns Motorola and Techcrunch proclaimed Motorola is currently the  most interesting smartphone company.[14] As Vaidhyanathan noted, “even though YouTube itself loses money, Google overall makes money.”[15]  Google’s sheer size and various ventures allows it to undertake the potentially unprofitable Project Ara. Project Ara looks to answer Sternes call to arms, but will a replaceable phone be sustainable or wasteful?


[1] “Phonebloks,”  http://ow.ly/qECCY.

[2] Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles Acland (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007),19.

[3] “Phonebloks.”

[4] Techcrunch, “Motorola Wants To Make Modular Smartphones A Reality With Project Ara,” http://ow.ly/qECWS.

[5] Sterne, 17.

[6] Ibid, 20.

[7] Ibid, 21.

[8] Ibid, 22.

[9] Ibid, 23.

[10] Ibid, 28-29.

[11] Ibid, 29.

[12] “Phonebloks.”

[13] Ibid, 29.

[14] Techcrunch.

[15]  Vaidhyanathan, “Render unto Caesar: How Google Came to Rule the Web,” 36.

(Originally submitted for Amanda Stanhaus’s New Media Communications course  with  Caroline Bem.)