Saturday, June 09, 2007

I don't know the name of this mall, but it is (or was)
in Ogden, Utah. Photo by the Hahn Company in
the early 1980s.
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The Silent Threat of e-Waste

Hardly anyone talks about it, but the threat is astounding. According to Giles Slade in his book, Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America (published by Harvard University Press.) e-waste may become "the greatest biohazard facing the entire continent."

E-waste is comprised not only of discarded computers but the very hottest consumer electronics, like ipods and cell phones, and all their combinations. One hundred million cell phones were thrown out in 2005 alone. All of these devices are prettily on sale at your friendly neighborhood mall or shopping center or Big Box outlet. And online, too.

In his book, Slade places the e-waste problem in the right context: of our consumption habits, which are partly fed by the carefully nurtured assumption that (as I heard a performance artist put it tonight) there is such a place as "Away." As in, "just throw it Away."

Made to Break recently won the U.S. Independent Publisher Book Award national gold medal for best environmental book of 2006. There's talk of a TV documentary. The following is a shorter version of my review of this book published in the San Francisco Chronicle:

As Steven Wright famously said, "You can't have everything. Where would you put it?" So you get rid of the old stuff, but what makes it old? The idea of products built not to last irks us, but for a variety of reasons we routinely discard devices that work just fine. Obsolescence by any other name has helped nourish a sweet economy, but a hidden cost is coming due fast, in the poisonous waste quickly overwhelming the world's capacity to deal with it.

Giles Slade, who describes himself as an "unaffiliated scholar," produces these numbers in "Made to Break": At least 90 percent of the 315 million still-functional personal computers discarded in North America in 2004 were trashed (it was 63 million just a year before), and more than 100 million cell phones -- 200,000 tons worth -- were thrown away in 2005. Cell phones are especially dangerous, because their toxic components are too small to disassemble and recycle. They are also being trashed with amazing speed, with the shortest life span of any electronic product.

Things are likely to get much worse in the near future, thanks to better enforcement of the international ban on exporting hazardous waste expected in coming years ($100 bills taped to the inside of inspected cartons currently help grease this activity, Slade notes), and especially due to the FCC-mandated switch to high definition TV in 2007, which may result in millions of suddenly junked televisions. "This one-time disposal of 'brown goods' will, alone, more than double the hazardous waste problem in North America."

The overall effect is profound. "As the waste piles up in the United States, above and below ground" Slade writes, "contamination of America's fresh water supply from e-waste may soon become the greatest biohazard facing the entire continent." Even if there were places to take the stuff offshore, there won't be enough ships to carry it.

"We are standing on the precipice of an insurmountable e-waste storage problem that no landfill program so far imagined will be able to solve." This assessment frames Slade's examination of the various kinds of obsolescence that contribute to the problem. A new machine that does something different (the PC), or adds new capability (cell phone versus land line) or adds new features (cell phones with Internet, etc.) is an obvious incentive for a consumer to replace the old machine. But besides the apparent progress of the new and improved, there are other factors that encourage consumers to buy and rapidly throw away products.

Changes in style (the annual model change adopted by the auto industry being the best-known example) and appeals to status encouraged by massive advertising are major forms of "psychological obsolescence," specifically designed to create demand for new versions of old and still usable products. But another way of selling new machines at a faster rate is to make sure the old ones break down sooner. This practice of "death-dating" is what most people think of when they hear the term "planned obsolescence."

The book ends where it began, with concise warnings about the perils of e-waste, and a call for "technological literacy." Just because cyberspace is invisible, and few people know or care how cell phones work, doesn't mean these new devices are as ethereal as magic. They have costs. We're paying in fuel and air pollution to power them (George Gilder projects that Internet computing will soon require as much power as the entire U.S. economy did in 2001), and to make them (author Hunter Lovins estimates the manufacture of a laptop computer creates 4,000 times its weight in waste.) Now toxic e-waste joins the mountain range of rubble from our throw-away economy. In the 21st century, garbage is becoming our most important product.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

HARRY POTTER, ENVIRO WIZARD? Why not? With more than 12 million copies of the final book in JK Rowling's series expected to be sold in the U.S. alone, the publisher's decision to go green is going to have impact.

Scholastic Press has promised that no less than 30% of each book will be post-consumer recycled paper, and 65% of the virgin paper used will be from Forest Stewardship Council approved sustainable forests.

It's especially important when paper recycling is lagging-- more than 90% of printed matter still comes straight from the trees. Deforestation is one of the major problems affecting the biosphere. Among other things, it makes the climate crisis worse. So thanks, Harry. We need more of your magic.
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Monday, February 19, 2007

Long Beach Plaza, publicity shot, early 1980s.
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Unintelligible Design

Awhile ago I perused a book called The Laws of Simplicity by John Maeda of MIT's Media Lab, which is a designer's response to new devices that are too complex, like DVDs with multiple menus and nifty little electronics that come accompanied by manuals way bigger than they are. It's not a bad book--I especially liked the chapter on Emotion (you can see the Laws for yourself at but it doesn't really address the problems I have.

It's not that devices are too complex (though they are) but that their most basic functions are increasingly difficult to use. Maeda praises the simplicity of the Ipod dial, but one major problem with small devices is that the buttons and dials that operate them are very, very small, and often the "simple" design hides them. Screen menus, also very small. Plus they are dominated by "simple" icons. My lovely little digital camera has a little thing you move that puts you into "portrait" mode (as distinguished from "image" mode. Because of course a portrait isn't an image.) Then you press Menu and up comes a screen full of row upon row of indistinguishable icons that you need to decipher in order to control light and exposure and focus, pretty important when you're taking pictures. But not only do I need extra-strength magnifying glasses, I require the assistance of perhaps an Egyptologist skilled in the peculiar hieroglyphics of this particular camera brand and model.

The problem of buttons that are too small to distinguish and often to find, plus too small to see, is perhaps more a problem for aging baby boomers than the original target market for these devices, although since there are thirty billion of us (approximately), more than any other age cohort, it might be a good idea to keep us in mind. Devices to hear music everywhere, to edit video and sound, etc.--we've been dreaming of this stuff since the 60s. We're primed. And quite clearly, we're being dissed.

But it's not just age-related. How many of these devices do we use when we're supposed to be looking at something else--car music systems are perfect examples. If you've rented cars you know how insane many if not most if not all of these systems are, and how insane they make you. Just trying to figure out how to turn them on (or off!), change the station, get the station back you were listening to before, or switch to a CD etc. is difficult enough when you're looking right at it, but here's a newsflash for designers--people who use them are quite often DRIVING. Their attention--and their eyes--are needed elsewhere.

And there are other circumstances in which we'd like to turn the volume up or down, or whatever, by touch. I've got a portable CD player (I know, how quaint) that works admirably--good sound, doesn't skip--or not much--when I'm moving. But the various functions are scattered all over it, the play and stop are on top, the volume control is on the side, and is indistintinguishable (even when you're looking at it) from the control that pops open the lid of the CD. It's a nightmare, especially since the controls are very sensitive to touch, and if you brush the wrong one, you're screwed.

But don't worry--I've got a hot design idea for these devices--it may sound radical, but hear me out: How about an actual on/off button that's the biggest button on the thing, and a nice big red light to say it's on? Or even better--a dial that when you turn it clockwise, clicks on with a discernable sound, and as you keep turning it, it increases the volume. And put this dial on, say, the far left of the device. Then on the far right, another dial that allows for manual control of things like radio stations. And if you must, you can put a bunch of other buttons in a row between them. But the real key is, this design is the same on every device, no matter the make or manufacturer, so we all have a clear idea in our heads of how it operates, and we can do the most important functions without looking, even in the dark, even without taking our eyes off that idiot weaving into traffic in front of us.

I know it sounds far out--oh, wait--isn't that exactly the configuration that's been on every audio and video device since the dawn of humanity, until quite recently? I wonder why?

I understand as well that these devices are made for the mass international market, so they come loaded with icons and with manuals providing the same noninformation in six languages. So icons may be a fact of life, but how about a few words here and there? I'm willing to learn the Spanish for "low light" or the Chinese for "daylight." I already know the French for "night."And if you want to work on a real design problem, how about earphone wires and other wires that don't make it their life's mission to tangle up and intertwine? There are times they seem to exhibit the only signs of intelligence these devices can offer: the clear intent to make things difficult for me.

I caught part of a segment on 60 Minutes about this, and they said part of the problem is products being rushed to market without being adequately tested. So people are actually hiring consultants to help them figure out how to run their big screen TVs and turn on their car radios. This is a kind of decadence nothing in consumer culture so far has adequately prepared us for.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Harborplace in Baltimore, 1980s.
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I've been neglecting this blog for awhile, but I'm going to be posting more regularly now, with a new template, some new features and a new focus.

I've noticed that a lot of visitors here have linked from the Malls of America and Livemalls sites, and so I've started my new links menu with them. Since those nostalgic photos from shopping mall history seem to be of interest, I plan to add some here from my collection of hundreds of images gathered over the years I researched THE MALLING OF AMERICA. However, a lot of those images need to be digitized first, so it may take awhile. I did convert a few slides--like the one above--but there are many more to come.

I'm fascinated by mall nostalgia, but I am mostly interested in the future. So this blog will also take up those aspects of consumer culture that characterize our present and have the greatest impact on the future. I hope that will be interesting, too.

I'll also be going back to previous posts and tagging them, to make the site more searchable. See you soon, and much more often...