‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth’ may sound like a boast, but it’s a simple statement of physics. With a sufficiently long lever, Archimedes could have amplified the force of his weight sufficiently to shift the planet. The lever was one of six simple machines – rudimentary objects that transform the size or direction of an applied force – that were widely used in antiquity. The other five were the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, the wheel and axle, and the screw.
The screw, whose miniature steel variety is now among the most numerous fabricated objects on earth, is a combination of two other simple machines. The helical threading on a screw’s shank is a wrapped inclined plane (like a helter skelter) which drives the wedge of its pointed tip. The simplest screws have slotted heads, which are easy to drive in by hand, but prone to slipping, especially when subject to the energetic rotations of electric screwdrivers. The Phillips screw drive was developed to overcome this risk: the crosshead screwdriver nestles snugly into the scalloped cruciform. But Phillips screws easily strip; poor technique, or an ill-fitting screwdriver tip, can shred the screw, giving off that sharp scent of filings and failure.
As with many connecting objects (TV aerials, USB ports) screw nomenclature is heteronormative: the screw itself is ‘male’, the object it penetrates ‘female’. The inscriptions on screw heads are sites of power. Using atypical screw drives is a way to lock people out of the objects they seal. This makes it harder for us to repair things, and more likely to replace them.
In 2009 Apple started using pentalobe screws on the cases of their phones and laptops. Removing them required a specialist tool. (Inside the case, the company uses ordinary Phillips screws: they just don’t want anyone to get that far.) The flower-shaped screw heads are part of a broader strategy of planned obsolescence. Apple has faced a raft of class action lawsuits since admitting in 2017 that it programmed older phones to download updates that made them slower, driving people to replace them. It is also guilty of ‘part pairing’: linking components to their devices via serial numbers and digital registration, so that an error message shows if anyone other than an authorised Apple technician replaces a iPhone battery.
Far from an atypical scam, planned obsolescence is core to the logic of capitalism. If your product – or, worse, your competitor’s – meets people’s needs too completely, you’re out of business. Enduring markets require non-enduring products. The trick is at least a century old. In 1924, a group of lightbulb manufacturers established the Phoebus cartel. They collectively directed their engineers to reverse the advances that had led to long-lasting filaments, and shorten the lifespan of an average incandescent bulb from 2500 to 1000 hours.
As electronics fail faster, our waste is becoming ever more precious. There’s now three hundred times more gold in an iPhone than in the equivalent mass of gold ore. If you do manage to unscrew a smartphone and get into its glittering innards, you’re looking at a sampler of most of the non-radioactive elements in the universe. Among them are eight or so rare-earth elements: metals with specific magnetic, fluorescent and conductive properties. Some provide the vivid colours of displays; others make the phone vibrate.
Rare-earth elements are in fact prevalent in the earth’s crust, but highly dispersed, and therefore difficult to extract in bulk (dysprosium derives from the Greek dysprositos, ‘hard to get’). Their mining is ruinous to soil and water: isolating a tonne of rare earth metals creates two thousand tonnes of toxic waste. After we discard them, many of our electronic devices are shipped to waste dumps, often in West Africa, where they are melted down, spewing carcinogens into the air and earth. (Electronic waste did not feature on the agenda of the COP26 talks.)
In July, the UK government introduced new ‘right to repair’ legislation. After a two-year grace period, manufacturers of dishwashers, fridges, washing machines and televisions will have to make spare parts available to consumers and professionals. Most appliances fail because a single component – a hinge, a pump, a filter – is broken, but entire machines are often scrapped, sending large volumes of useful materials to landfill. The new policy requires that simple repairs be possible using everyday tools – which means, among other things, no esoteric screw heads.
The idea of a right to fixable products wrests power away from corporations and towards the people whose needs their products are supposed to meet, and who must live in the world that is ravaged by their production and expiration. The legislation has serious shortcomings though. If manufacturers are required to sell replacement parts, that may incentivise part failure, to bloat the market for components and repair services. Without strict guarantees on the lifetimes of products, and price controls on components, the policy may be self-defeating: it may still be cheaper to buy a new, low-end appliance than to fix an existing one. The scope of the legislation is also limited. It doesn’t include phones, tablets or laptops, which are among the most short-lived devices.
Capitalism is often praised for driving growth, variety and innovation. Growth, measured through the dubious proxy of GDP, requires ever increasing energy use and resource extraction. Variety is a zero-sum game: you can have product diversity or biodiversity but you can’t have both. And the drive for innovation ignores the fact that people’s basic needs are unchanging and still mostly unmet. Our problem is not a lack of technology.
A lot of corporate innovation consists of creating new desires. The average smartphone replacement rate in the UK is two years. Some stop working, but most simply lose their appeal: they are perceived to be obsolete. The push for fixable products will achieve little as long as consumerism’s indoctrination wing is given a free pass.
The journalist Vance Packard sounded an early warning about planned obsolescence in 1960, in his book The Waste Makers. Sixty years on, with none of the lessons learned, it seems we are wasteful not only of serviceable goods but also of serviceable ideas. People ‘need not stand by helplessly and let their technology carry them willy-nilly in a direction that raises their apprehension’, Packard wrote:
They can refuse to let technology dominate their lives. They can deliberately decentralise its organised manifestations. They can insist that non-economic factors as well as economic ones be weighed in setting their society’s course. One of the challenges they face is that of working out a tolerable relationship with their machines, a relationship that leaves the possibility for the human spirit to soar.