CES – The Fetishisation of Obsolescence

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Gadget ownership is being redefined by systems and third party apps on the periphery of core functionality, and it is quickening the pace of tech obsolescence, adding to the growth in global e-waste.


 

CES is the global tech bonanza which takes place every year in the Nevadan desert in California and is the place for gadget junkies, tech start-ups and global super brands to showcase the latest consumer technology trends.

Everything from intelligent fridges choc-full of sensors and apps, virtual reality headsets loaded with leading-edge software and even grill-cleaning robots was being paraded at this year’s CES festival, providing a dazzling glimpse into our hyper-connected future, a future in which our fetishization of technological obsolescence is propping up our upgrade culture.

Familiar first world luxuries like refrigerators, kettles and cleaning equipment are now going the way of the smartphone, which operates on an 18-month replacement cycle, as everyday household items’ core functionality – keeping food cool, boiling water or hoovering our floors – is being rapidly digitized with operating systems, sensors and 3rd party apps all geared towards making our lives more efficient.

But with this multitude of synchronised gadgets and the seemingly inevitable march towards a connected future comes the rather bleak promise that more and more everyday items will join the mobile phone as ‘throwaway’ tech. These are products and devices which have obsolescence woven into their business model.

For the vast majority of products on display at CES, it seems unlikely they will ever be seen as anything more than tech novelties; designed to thrill and entertain rather than fulfil a specific function or plug a gap in the market. Moreover, the features and functions on display at this year’s CES represent modern culture’s insistence that a product is not worth having unless it is likely that several upgrades will follow.

It is this upgrade principle off which the smartphone market thrives. We buy into the phone manufacturer’s ecosystem – becoming dependent on their hardware and obsessed with their software while tacitly agreeing that the model we own will be replaced within 18 months.

Take the humble refrigerator. It is a product which has dutifully carried out its task of chilling our food and drink for years. Not only that but they have become extraordinarily energy efficient and reliable in the process, meaning a modern fridge can last years carrying out its primary function of keeping things cool.

At CES this year there was an army of new fridges with all manner of intricate functionality bolted on. Refrigerators which open at the touch of a foot but are ‘clever’ enough to know the difference between human and canine or feline paws. Refrigerators with on-board cameras, sensors, tablets and Wi-Fi that alerts you to impeding use-by dates and dwindling stock-levels. But with so much added software functionality, what happens when said software needs updating? How will the owner cope when his or her fridge gets a new operating system? What will become of the fridge when its dependent apps are discontinued? In all probability the fridge will be replaced, even if its primary function is working fine.

Extend this upgrade culture to those commonplace items on show at CES and it will soon be clear that despite collective protestations regarding the environmental impact of electronic waste, the problem is likely to get much worse over the next decade.

 

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