It is, says The Economist, “the most successful consumer product in history:” the smartphone, that is. The brilliantly named and marketed smartphone is the group name for a series of sophistications of the original mobile, phone – the cell phone. A recent survey of Americans revealed that 95 percent of us own a cellphone, 77 percent have smartphones. But that’s nothing: a contemporaneous study of South Koreans turned up that 94 percent of them have smartphones.
The world is so saturated in smartphones that there’s little room for market growth. With few new buyers on the horizon, manufacturers of smartphones depend on getting you to turn yours over with increasing frequency.
The industry is pretty good at inducing auto-obsolescence. In the United Kingdom a recent survey showed the average lifespan for a smartphone/owner marriage was less than two years, and in the United States, the smartphone turnover rate was even faster – old phone out – new phone in, every 22 months.
Well beyond, in space and time, its personal lifetime with you, a smartphone, like every other manufactured product, has a four-part lifecycle of its own.
It begins with sourcing … what raw materials go into the product and how are they gathered and then refined on their way to the manufacturer?
Then, there’s the manufacturing process itself, putting the parts together and distributing the finished product to consumers.
Third is the part of the life-cycle we care about most, when we put the product to use.
And then, the last of this four-part lifetime, the afterlife … what happens when a product has been used, and maybe reused, but is finally retired from service. It becomes waste, and becomes, now without any compensating benefits, a problem.
Actually, all four parts of the smartphone lifecycle pose problems, or at least unanswered questions, for people who worry about what their smartphone use means for their personal health or for the survival of the planet.
Richard Maxwell is a political economist of media. His research begins at the intersection of politics and economics to analyze the global media, their social and cultural impact, and the policies that regulate their reach and operations. He has published widely on a range of topics, from television in Spain’s democratic transition to Hollywood’s international dominance, from media politics in the post 9-11 era to how big political economic forces work in the mundane routines of daily life and culture. His latest book (with Tony Miller) is How Green Is Your Smartphone? (Polity Press 2020).
His writing on media and cultural consumption draws attention to the specter of living life under ever expanding governmental and commercial surveillance. And his current work on the environmental impact of media focuses on the environmental harms caused by media, information technologies, and electronics.
Maxwell received his BA in Communication and Visual Arts from the University of California at San Diego and his MA and PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin. He has previously taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Northwestern University.