In June 2004 I acquired the Palm Treo 600, which I’m still using 7.5 years later. The Treo is an early smartphone that combined the features of a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) with a cell phone, basic camera, rudimentary web browser, and the ability to install third-party applications. I’ve loved using my Treo. Even though I didn’t do any web browsing on it (which was at a painfully-slow dial-up speed), the Treo 600 still put a wealth of information in my pocket. I had access to my contacts and calendar, lists, notes, maps, transit schedules, a dictionary, and even the ability to edit documents. And when I first owned it, few other people had smartphones, so I had a certain (entirely self-perceived) coolness factor.
I consider myself to be an environmentalist. So my first few years of cell phone ownership didn’t fit my green values. (My first no-frills device was in fall 2001, I replaced it with a Treo 180 not even a year later, and the Treo 600 came along 21 months after that.) The problem with owning three cell phones in as many years is the environmental damage caused by their manufacture and disposal. Not only does it require mining a lot of stuff from the earth to make a cell phone — such as copper, gold, lead, nickel, zinc, beryllium, tantalum, coltan, and other metals — but it also takes fossil fuels to make the plastic components, and at the end of its lifespan the device contains toxic materials that need to be recycled or reused responsibly. (These include lead, mercury, brominated flame-retardants, heavy metals like cadmium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, arsenic, and PVC plastic).
I decided to stick with my Treo instead of always getting the latest new phone and to make it last as long as I could. One thing that helped keep it running was a fantastic case. (I fell once while skating downhill at maybe 15-20 mph. My pants were shredded and the case was scratched, but the phone was just fine.) But time has marched on and if you could measure it in human years my phone must be in its eighties or nineties. The screen is damaged (it happened the one time that I used the phone without a case) and it’s failing in its ability to make calls — which is kind of the point of a cell phone.
In addition to the environmental reasons, I’ve held off on getting a current smartphone because the tradeoff to having internet access in your pocket is that you can end up spending too much time online, which is something I’m already guilty of. (Data plans aren’t cheap either. You can easily spend over $1000 a year in the United States for basic smartphone service.)
But my Treo is essentially on life support and the new Galaxy Nexus caught my eye even before it launched in December. I have my concerns about how successfully Google is avoiding being evil but Android (and especially the line of Android reference phones) is the most open cell phone operating system that I know of. And I’ll admit that my geeky side is seduced by the specs on this device, using my cell phone for social networking, and having a 1080p video camera in my pocket.
Perhaps I’ve been too enamored of early adopters — those who use a new technology long before anyone else. Early adoption can keep you on the cutting edge of technology, but for electronic gadgets there is an environmental dark side. But why do early adopters have to adopt everything early? Why not coin a new term: “leapfrog adopters.” Leapfrog adopters would apply to people who acquire the latest, greatest technology available…and then use it for as long as possible, before finally giving in and getting the next newest thing. Leapfrog adopters would balance their love of technology with their concern for the environment. Instead of bragging rights for owning the newest device, leapfrog adopters would earn hat tips for how long they’d been using their latest piece of technology. And by delaying their purchases they would also get more pleasure from the anticipation, as this PsyBlog article explains.
To be fair, it requires more creativity and patience to use technology that’s no longer actively supported or that outright isn’t capable of doing something that a newer device can (like connect to the internet). But the more of us that slow down our purchasing cycles, the better it will be for the environment. I can even imagine that companies which now try to sell us on buying more and more things ever more quickly, might someday compete on the durability and longevity of their products. Planned obsolescence is a relatively recent concept (historically speaking) and products used to last longer. Fortunately, I see a couple of hopeful signs that the older values might be returning. First, as Rachel Botsman writes about in What’s Mine is Yours, collaborative consumption, which shares objects among many users, will cause more wear-and-tear on heavily-shared objects and may create demand for more durable products. Second, Patagonia has begun to encourage its customers to buy less and to buy used.
As for me, I’m planning to hold off on the Galaxy Nexus until a GSM version is released in the U.S., which will fit my budget better. But in the meantime I’m going to start proudly calling myself a leapfrog adopter.