A friend of mine asked me why I wrote a recent post about how capitalism has failed to produce a smartphone that I want to buy. Don’t I know that a socialist economy would produce far worse phones, so why am I complaining? Consumer electronics wasn’t exactly a strong point of the Soviet block countries or Maoist China.
I don’t want to live under pure socialism or pure Capitalism because they both lead to too much concentration of power in too few hands. Both are lovely in theory but both lead to dystopias in the real world, especially when practiced in their extremes. However, the vast majority of the world lives in a mixed economy. The real question in almost every society is what areas of the economy should be socialized and what areas should be run by private enterprise which are subject to governmental regulation and what should be the degree of that regulation.
My post was responding to the free market fundamentalists who have a magical belief that capitalist companies will always respond to consumer demand and produce what people want. If you look into the history of planned obsolescence, you will find that Capitalist companies often decide to produce what makes a profit, but not necessarily what consumers demand. The collusion of companies like GE and Phillips in the 1920s to produce light bulbs with a shorter lifespan is the most famous case, but there are many examples. It is clear to me that the electronics companies have made a business decision to produce consumer electronics without removable batteries because it will shorten product lifespans and generate more sales.
Usually these sort of decisions are made when you have a limited number of companies, such as when the LCD manufacturers got together and decided to switch to 9:16 panels in 2011-2012 because they thought that media-oriented laptops and tablets would generate higher sales, despite the fact that traditional business users didn’t want the new screens. Since there were only 7 companies, it was easy for all of them to agree and there were articles in the tech press that the screens would be switched before it happened, but nobody was willing to talk about how that decision had been made. In the case of non-removable batteries, I don’t see any evidence of a formal decision by a trade group, but rather all companies can see the commercial benefit of shorter lifespans of electronics. In 2017, 90% of new phone models don’t have removable batteries according to the gsmarena.com database. In 2018, I expect that it will be 100%.
When you consider the environmental and social impact of forcing people to buy a new mobile phone roughly every 2 years, it is clear that our current incarnations of capitalism aren’t delivering the optimal solution, whether it be the smartphone market in China, Singapore or Bolivia. As I noted in a previous post, I guesstimate that 0.5% of anthropogenic greenhouse gases come from manufacturing 1.5 billion smartphones per year and the high cost of buying a new smartphone every 2 years is creating a digital divide between the haves and have-nots
It is at this point where I ask what should be done to change it. Do you try to raise awareness so that many consumers will demand electronics with removable batteries? Do you try to work with a group like Greenpeace to organize protests and try to generate bad publicity for the consumer electronics industry? Do you try to organize a formal group like the Consumer Union to make demands of the industry? Do you try to push for governmental regulation similar to the WEEE in the European Union that would force electronics manufacturers to use removable batteries? Do you try to get governmental agencies like the military to only buy electronics with removable batteries and hope that that policy will make electronics companies also offer those same models for the consumer market? Do you try and start a company like Fairphone which is not based on planned obsolescence and hope that its good example will push other electronics manufacturers to do the same?
These are the critical questions in my mind. It is basically the question of how do you prevent a private industry from following a bad business model when you live in a society with some freedom of action and some power of free association.