“The future is not what we expected it to be.” Mark Shayler, opening the RSA’s Redesigning the Future event, didn’t pull punches. “We’ve become lazy – we define ourselves by the ownership of products.”
I’m typing this on a 2009 MacBook Pro. The machine is almost indistinguishable from thousands of others, a metallic clone whose glowing white apple marks me as a ‘Mac person’ when I take it out in public. But there’s subtle evidence on its hard shell that this machine has shared some of the most important moments of my life.
See here, near the bottom right corner of the touch screen – chipped metal where I dropped the laptop onto the bitumen of a 24-hour McDonald’s carpark after a night of red-eye driving in remote North Queensland. Try the useless eject button, the dead DVD drive rarely an inconvenience but often a reminder of how technology is moving on – is there still a DVD in there? I’m not sure.
And just now, while inspecting my companion of the past three years, I’ve noticed that two of the ‘feet’ are missing, opening small holes into the black-boxed interior, one revealing a sticker in a language I can’t read.
Could I cast this laptop aside in favour of a new one? Send it to join what Rich Gilbert labelled an “end of life centre,” where “a mountain of dead products wait to be collectively reprocessed”? Or, as Jonathan Chapman put it, a landfill that “is more of an orphanage than a graveyard, a place where most things could still work – a home for unwanted things.”
At some point, this computer will stop working, or I’ll replace it. But what do I do with it then? Staggering percentages of the products we buy end up either gathering dust or in landfill. These objects are the manifestation of raw resources clawed from our environment, shipped, moulded, refined, designed and sold. The part of the object’s life that we see – the part it shares with us – is a fraction of the time from its inception to eventual disposal or, in some cases, recycling or repurposing.
I’m attached to this machine. It’s stamped indelibly with marks that are meaningful to me, and I’d be sad to see it go, even though I can resurrect its software perfectly on new hardware with Time Machine. But we are increasingly educated to value newness, the latest and largest and highest resolution. How is it possible for this consumer ethos to survive in a world where resource scarcity looms, the price of materials is rising, the world’s population and spending power is booming, and our ability to capture value from our immense waste stream is still so limited?
Jonathan Chapman summarised it succinctly. “The sustainability crisis is a crisis of perception, as much to do with the human condition as it is about plastic, metals and carbon dioxide.” I think a good place to start is to look at our own relationship with stuff. What do you buy? What do you value? What do you keep? What do you get rid of, and how? And what would you do if the cornucopia of goods available in the world today, available at the click of a button, dried up?
How might ‘you’ change if the stuff in your life was suddenly gone?