Tech to trash: The wastefulness of new technology

Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor. A sculpture in the Carnegie Museum of Art and Natural History depicts a man holding a cellphone.

Andrew Cummings | multimedia editor

Sept. 23, 2021

When the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X released in November 2020, gamers were excited to get their hands on the new consoles. However, due to a global computer microchip shortage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, these new consoles have been very difficult to purchase.

I know people that have spent hours in online queues trying to order a new console, only to be notified that the website is sold out.

The race to buy the new gaming consoles brings up a bigger question – one that goes beyond gaming and questions an overall trend in technology culture – why is there always such a high consumer demand for new technology?

Every time a new tech product releases, it seems like people are quick to purchase it. Look at the iPhone 12, which launched in October 2020. According to Counterpoint Research, by the end of June 2021, it had sold over 100 million units. 

On the first day of pre-orders, the iPhone 12 sold twice as many units as the iPhone 11 when it launched, as reported by the United Press International.

On The Verge’s website, they reported that the PlayStation 5 has sold over 10 million units as of July 2021, which makes it the fastest-selling Sony console.

Both of the examples listed so far lack what I would consider to be any significant upgrades or differences from their predecessors.

Some of the main differences between the iPhone 12 and the iPhone 11 are an improved camera and an improved battery, as well as adding 5G cellular connectivity. This is a far cry from the iPhone 6, which increased the four inch screen size of the iPhone 5 to 4.7 inches, or the 5.5 inch “Plus” model. Nonetheless, new iPhones sell millions of units every year.

Compared to the PlayStation 4, some of the new PlayStation 5 features include faster loading times, the ability to play games at a 4K resolution and adaptive triggers on the controllers. 

All of these features are cool, but why should someone spend $400 to $500 on a new console if their PlayStation 4 still works well? PlayStation advocates would likely say to play the new games, but very few have been released so far. And, if people wait to buy the PlayStation 5, it will likely come down in price.

iPhones and PlayStations are two popular examples of new tech products, but they speak to a larger idea of people always wanting the latest technology, regardless of how well their current devices function.

Companies like Apple have been accused of practicing planned obsolescence, which is a policy of artificially shortening a product’s lifespan so that consumers will buy the next product sooner. 

For iPhones, this means slowing down performance on older models. Apple’s rationale is that older batteries do not work efficiently with newer software. This practice might partially explain the fast turnover times for these devices.

It is important to think about what happens to old technology when it is replaced. 

In 2020, there was an estimated 50 tons of e-waste created around the world. Half of it consisted of devices like smartphones, according to The Guardian. This is a lot of waste that is being generated entirely by technology.

Whether it be because of planned obsolescence or simply wanting faster and more efficient technology, this trend of making powerful and expensive consumer devices that are destined to become obsolete within a few years of their release is wasteful. 

People should carefully consider if they actually need new technology, or if they are just buying it because it is the popular thing to do.