Starting To Think About The Disposable Computer Culture

Yesterday I was listening to NPR Morning Edition and one of the top stories was about the unveiling of the iPad Mini. Something inside me finally snapped- why does NPR consider a product launch to be news? Instead of constantly talking up Apple’s product launches, why don’t they do investigations into the environmental concerns caused by their products?

A couple of weeks ago, I heard Kyle Weins speak at the Content Strategy Workshops. Kyle is one of the founders of iFixit, a company/ online community that creates and publishes the world’s largest collection of online repair manuals in addition to selling the parts and tools. The company was started in 2003 by Kyle and his business partner Luke Soules when they were students at California Polytechnic State University. they also founded Dozuki, which sells the software platform they use to write the iFixit repair manuals to other companies. Here’s an interesting article about them from Mother Jones.

iFixit has turned into a large and vibrant online community of people who like to fix things who have created thousands of manuals for different products, not just Apple products and other computers. There is a companion blog site,, that features teardowns of new prodcuts like the Retina MacBook Pro and activism around issues like trying to promote a culture of fixers rather than consumers and the very important issue of E-Waste.

During his talk, Kyle showed an iPad he had taken apart and explained how difficult it was to repair it. Apple has been at the forefront of the sleek and exciting computer revolution of the past decade. While everyone celebrates Steve Jobs for creating products with elegant user design, few people seem to notice that these i- and Mac- Things are slowly starting to become less fixable and more disposable. Kyle has been talking about these issues for many years and writes regularly for Wired, including this recent article entitled “Unfixable Computers Are Leading Humanity Down a Perilous Path.”

Hearing Kyle speak was a real revelation as he put into words the nagging feelings I had about the other side of the information revolution. Kyle mentioned that even with electronic waste recycling, there were still necessary rare earth elements that cannot be recovered. We are increasingly dependent on these devices that are made with rare earth elements that are hard to mine and will eventually run out. What are we going to do then? During the Q&A, I asked whether there was such a thing as green computing and his answer was basically no.

These issues, especially the ones surrounding the mining of the necessary rare earth minerals, are only going to get more important the more we become dependent on computers. Will our dependency on foreign-mined rare earth elements replace oil as a national security issue?

You can’t really call either of us are anti-tech, Luddites, or Apple player haters (this post was written using a MacBook Pro), yet we are both concerned with the way things are going. I thank Kyle, Luke and everyone at iFixit for getting me to really start thinking about this complex tangle of issues. I am only at the very beginning of my journey to learn about these issues that he has been discussing for years and plan to write more about them in the near future.