The Misdeeds of Innovation

By Kendyl Brower

I have an iPhone 8. My friends often poke fun at my rather “old” phone which has less-than-great camera quality and occasionally malfunctions, but I feel as though I just got this device. And it’s true—the iPhone 8 was made in 2017 and I received mine around 2019. In just 2 years, how did my shiny new phone become an ancient artifact? Innovation breeds genius ideas—there is no denying that. But under our capitalist economy, companies put up a mirage of innovation only to repackage the same products with minimal upgrades at the expense of consumers and the environment. Does competition breed innovation, or just overconsumption? I argue that recent technological advances in iPhones are only a facade of improvement. 

The latest iPhone 13 priced at a whopping $1,000 offers worthless advances from its predecessor. For reference, the iPhone 6S was 70% faster than the previous iPhone 6; today, the iPhone 13 is only 10% faster than the previous model. Innovation at Apple has plateaued as the company releases new devices indistinguishable from the one last year. Perhaps this minimal upgrade is for the better: consumers do not need to upgrade their phones as frequently. However, despite the lack of evolution, consumers seem to indulge in the “brand new” tech anyway. Marketing professionals engrain consumers with the notion that we must always purchase, resulting in a never-ending cycle of consumption.  

Such frequent upgrades result in tons of electronic waste—up to 50 million tons yearly according to the 2019 United Nations Environment Program. Even worse, only 20% of such waste is recycled properly, the rest stockpiling in landfills. Copper, aluminum, and iron accumulate in the air as electronics burn; mercury and lead byproducts seep into the soil and contaminate precious groundwater. Thus, food sources, water supply, and human and wildlife health are all at risk due to an ever growing pile of electronic trash. Moreover, researchers at United Nations University found that e-waste contains around $61 billion worth of materials. Valuable resources in circuit boards are carelessly tossed in landfills, accumulating more precious metals than the most productive mines globally. In America, over $60 million of gold and silver is wasted annually via e-waste.

The consistent push for more devices, newer models, and better designs results in the waste of money, time, and resources. Under capitalism, as corporations constantly create to compete, they tamper the true meaning of innovation. Each iPhone upgrade becomes less compelling and more environmentally destructive. Rather than micro advances in camera quality or speed, the technology industry should address sustainability to counter the growing issue of electronic waste.