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Brighton, England


It’s possibly too early to begin reflecting on the past year, but if there is one theme that has persisted, it would be that of sustainability. Be it organising a green hack day, pledging not to fly for twelve months or writing a number of posts on the topic, considering how I can reduce my impact on the environment has caught my imagination.

It’s worth noting that much of this post was written on board trains and ferries as I travelled from Brighton to Belfast to attend this years Build conference. Whilst it’s taken me the best part of a day to reach Northern Ireland, I can enjoy Wednesday’s conference without feeling any guilt had I flown the short distance to get here.

It is with this perspective that I wish to explain the frustration and annoyance I’ve felt recently as once again friends and colleagues open their wallets and buy the latest product unveiled by Steve Jobs.

This has been an astonishing year for Apple having launched the iPad, the iPhone 4 and now a refreshed line of MacBook Airs. There is no doubting the desirability of these machines, or the impact they’ve had on the market as competitors desperately try to match Apple’s pace of innovation and development. As web designers whose work is impacted by these devices, we need to use them so we can understand the opportunities they present and limitations they suffer.

Yet I’m surprised by the willingness of some who buy these products seemingly without a moments pause. Are there not other ways we can use these products without resorting to outright ownership?

A device for every occasion

The iPhone, iPad and MacBook Air have all been designed with different types of user in mind, so for those purchasing each new product, the reasons for doing so become ever more lavish. Do you really need a device to use on the go, one for lounging on the sofa, one to use on the train and one to use at your desk? Really?

I think the reason I’ve become so frustrated with this behaviour is because it’s in complete contrast to my own.

I’m more of a minimalist (or should that be appropriatist) so often take the view less is more — or perhaps any more than enough is too much. I use a compact Apple keyboard instead of the full-size version, three home screens on my iPhone is still too many and my ‘Applications’ folder is frequently purged of unused apps. The thought of having to deal with yet another device fills me with dread — I have enough trouble trying to keep my current devices in sync!

Understanding the motivation

I was once told you can measure the true cost of your possessions by their initial value divided by how frequently you use them. For example, a £60 jacket worn only once will eventually cost more than a £1000 computer used 8 hours a day, 365 days of the year. By that measure, everything I own that I’m not using is costing me money.

Whilst this may explain my frustration, I’m still left trying to understand the motivation. Why would somebody need to purchase every product Apple announces — and so soon after launch too?

Is it merely the act of collecting products that are admired? Or is it a question of status? In a technology savvy city like Brighton, does owning the latest kit give you certain bragging rights? Perhaps it’s a symptom of boredom or needing to own the latest products to sustain an interest.

I see the pace of change only existing to satisfy narrowly focused commercial interests. As such, I’m deeply uncomfortable living in a society where computers and mobile devices are increasingly seen as disposable items, yet require the same amount of raw materials to be dug up out of the ground, and continue to sustain cheap labour markets often found in countries with questionable human rights policies.

Satisfaction guaranteed

I brought my first Apple product upon starting university. Whilst not an entirely necessary purchase, I believed it would be useful as I was studying Graphic Design. Until I started my first term (and received the student loan cheque that would fund it) I had to wait several months before I could purchase the iMac I had been eyeing.

Whilst the wait was agonising, it gave me the time to read reviews, contemplate different specifications and find the best available price. The torment endured by waiting meant I had a greater appreciation for the product once I could finally use it. Today, with a fairly disposable income, it’s easy to make purchases on a whim so any satisfaction like this is fleeting.

I know my opinion is unlikely to dissuade anyone from buying the next product Steve Jobs unveils, and of course everybody is free to spend their money however they wish. However, I console myself by knowing that upgrading less often, and making more informed choices when I do, means I’ll appreciate these products more than those buying them out of blind habit.

  • Tanya

    I completely agree - the temptation to upgrade and ‘own’ the latest device(s) has become a way of life for most of us - and has become a fundamental part of our behaviour as consumers. Having owned (and replaced) quite a few Apple products myself, I am as guilty of having done this in the past. The issue is also that companies do not make it easy, or affordable, for consumers to be able to upgrade the components of their old devices, as their prime goal is to make more profit. Equal responsibility lies with the consumer and producer to think more ethically and in a more sustainable manner. This will require a fundamental change in behaviour.

  • Dean Harris

    I feel a little bit awkward commenting, when I don’t know you from a bar of soap, but here goes.

    I can’t help but agree completely. I just can’t justify the frequent purchase of consumer goods - of any brand - if I don’t explicitly need it. For me it’s not so much about the environmental impact as it is about the personal impact. As you mentioned - everything you own has an ongoing cost on top of the initial purchase price.

    That is why I waited years to buy my first Mac, and bought the one I needed - not the one I wanted. It’s why I still use an iPhone 3G, despite it starting to show its age, and the OS running slowly. It’s also why, despite wanting one desperately, I’m hesitant to purchase a Kindle (no need for an iPad in my life). Sure, it’s affordable now, but will I be able to justify the ongoing cost of it?

    I closing - I completely agree with your sentiment. Just for a different reason.

  • Andy

    I’ve understood your view on this for some time, and have to agree in part that needless consumerism is not desirable (at least when there appears to be no thought given to environmental impacts), but I think this is a very typical indicator of the mood of UK society today.

    Corporate brands are naturally designed to persuade people to buy more, and the general conscience of the man in the street (including us web types) is influenced by whatever is ‘hot’ at the time. Trending is such a vastly important thing, and the faster our online lives get, the higher the turnover of trends. Twitter’s very own trends feature is a shining example of this, with the fads literally lasting minutes. I think it’s had a genuine influence on people’s desire to pick up the ‘hottest new thing’ because they can tap directly into the fervour of the moment - that instant shot of hype - something which has increased exponentially since the start of the internet and on-demand services.

    That said, there is also something to be said for the lure of innovation to humans at the bleeding edge and with the disposable income. I think this has happened before, and happens whenever there is great change in technology. If you compare this age directly to the Industrial Revolution I believe you can directly correlate the rapid and repeated re-investment in new machinery, tools and new technology for that enlightened state of being ‘ahead of the game’.

    It gives you an edge, sometimes an important and tangible one (for businesses, and certain consumers). And I’d argue that although it might seem that every man and his dog is buying an iPad or iPhone or whatever, the reality is that this group of early-adopters is actually very limited; the people who are doing it are generally people who are technical or have a vested interest somehow. The vast majority of people out there don’t rush out to buy every Apple product.

    So these folk who do buy; the designers, the developers, the web types and then those with more money than sense, I think you’d always have poor luck persuading them that they don’t need this stuff.

    I think I maybe cynical, but the public’s interest in actions of ‘great environmentalism’ has passed for the moment. The media’s sale of ‘green’ and the impending doom of the planet a couple of years ago really created a feeling of progress, but only when it was forced in the headlines.

    But like road-rage, like mad cow disease, like everything else that becomes a story - it has just become passé, and this year’s focus is the gloom of recession, and like in the depression of the 1930’s, tends to make aspirational futures and technological dream even more desirable and escapist than they normally might be. I maintain that most people in web/tech are currently doing better than most other industries at this point in time, and we are therefore as a group, more susceptible to be drawn to making these purchases just ‘because we can’ and are most regularly exposed to the ‘trend coalface’ than almost anybody else.