What is good technology — The trouble with obsolescence

Replacing an old MacBook Pro with a new one.

Next week, Apple will announce a bunch of new products. But I couldn’t wait for Tim Cook to unveil the new MacBook Pro that has been rumored about for months. I had to replace mine before the logic board died completely. I had my early-2011 15-inch MacBook Pro for nearly 4 1/2 years. That’s usually considered a good run for a laptop. My favorite Windows laptop, a blue HP Pavilion I used to write Offline, lasted that long. But for an Apple product, 4 1/2 years doesn’t seem long enough.

Part of why I bought a Mac was because I expected it to last a long time. At Starbucks, I see people happily typing away on 7-year-old white polycarbonate MacBook laptops. They can even upgrade them to macOS Sierra when it comes out. I do appreciate the upgraded features in my new MacBook Pro. The Retina screen is more comfortable to read. Bluetooth 4.0 enables me to listen to videos on my wireless headphones without the audio getting out of sync. The SSD is much faster than my old mechanical hard drive. Still, I’d rather upgrade when I wanted to instead of being forced to.

And Apple isn’t the only tech company with this problem.

My wife has been using my old Samsung smartphone that I got four years ago. She can make calls and text, but she can’t use any of the apps because they are not compatible with the version of Android on her phone. We were only able to do one upgrade of Android on her phone several years ago, and no upgrades have been available for that model since then.

We also have to replace a Visio TV we bought in 2009. It was our first HD flat-screen TV with a then glorious 720p resolution. It has worked without problem — until our satellite provider stopped supporting 720p TVs. Now, we get gray bars that crop screen like we were watching an old cathode-ray tube TV from the 1990s.

This isn’t just a first-world problem. Raw materials mined to produce technology products mostly come from third-world countries. They use mining and extraction processes that harm workers and the environment. Some raw materials are used to fund civil wars. When products become obsolete, many wind up in landfills where toxic materials can contaminate nearby soil and ground water.

Yes, tech companies depend on us upgrading our products every few years to be profitable. And yes, upgrading makes us more productive and offers new features for our enjoyment. Still, it frustrates us as consumers that we have to throw away products we spent a lot of money on and seem perfectly fine because of planned obsolescence. If we are thoughtful consumers, we are also disturbed at what these upgrades mean for the environment and the workers who create our products.

If we are going to upgrade or replace, we need to find options so that our technology — and the rare and dangerously mined and processed materials used to create it — doesn’t just wind up in the trash. Here are some options:

  • Give it to a family or a friend who can put it to use.
  • Donate it to a charity, like a public school, Goodwill, a halfway house, or a thrift shop run by a non-profit organization.
  • Sell it for parts to a company that repairs and refurbishes your brand of product.
  • Find a reputable recycling center that will extract the raw materials instead of just throwing most of it in the trash.

We can look to the organizers of the next Summer Olympics in Tokyo as an example of how to reuse old technology. They are looking at using recycled e-waste to make the medals for the games. One person’s obsolete or broken technology can be another person’s goal of a lifetime.

Our goal as technology consumers is to make our products last as long as we can. And when they are no longer useful, we can make the best use of them by donating and recycling them.