Limits and sustainable interaction design: Obsolescence in a future of collapse and resource scarcity
First Monday

Limits and sustainable interaction design: Obsolescence in a future of collapse and resource scarcity by Christian Remy and Elaine M. Huang



Abstract
Electronic waste, caused by the advancements of technology and its rapidly increasing obsolescence, represents a major threat to environmental sustainability. Research in sustainable HCI has proposed a variety of solutions to tackle this issue, but has yet to create a major impact in product design. While currently industry’s goals are opposed to research’s concepts of addressing obsolescence, a future of collapse and resource scarcity requires a revisit of those contributions: changes in society at large, such as a decrease of resource availability, different needs, requirements, and desires of the consumer, but also new directions of industry and marketing might enable researchers to bring their old concepts into practice. We take a look at a variety of obsolescence-related research in sustainable HCI and foreshadow its potential for such a future of collapse and resource scarcity.

Contents

Obsolescence and sustainable HCI
Collapse informatics and limits to growth
Sustainable interaction design in a future of resource scarcity
Transitioning into a future of limits
Conclusion

 


 

Obsolescence and sustainable HCI

Obsolescence, in particular the obsolescence of technology, has been an important topic of discussion in sustainable HCI (SHCI) and ubiquitous computing in recent years (e.g., Cooper, 2010; Fairphone, n.d.; Gegenbauer and Huang, 2012a, 2012b; Huang and Truong, 2008; Huang, et al., 2009; Odom, et al., 2009; Woolley, 2003). While some form of obsolescence — namely planned obsolescence — is brought upon us by industry (cf., Packard, 1960; Slade, 2006), the general term obsolescence encompasses a much larger meaning which does not necessarily imply bad intent. One origin for unintentional obsolescence stems from the very fields of HCI and ubiquitous computing themselves: the development and discovery of new technologies and opportunities for interaction enables and exacerbates obsolescence, since consumers aspire and acquire such new technology. The combination of those two field’s goals — research’s new discoveries in technology and industry’s urge to sell more products — leads to a dreadful impact on environmental sustainability. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2010 alone 374 million units of technology were disposed of, with only 19 percent of them going into recycling and 310 million units ending up as electronic waste.

SHCI has produced a variety of solutions to address obsolescence (see Remy and Huang (2015) for a survey of obsolescence-related research in SHCI), but has yet to produce an impact on product design in practice. While the problem of bringing guidelines and theoretical frameworks from research to practice, also known as the theory-practice gap, is a well-known problem in the general field of HCI that has been frequently mentioned (Goodman, et al., 2011; Roedl and Stolterman, 2013; Rogers, 2004; Sutcliffe, 2000), the solutions to obsolescence face another obstacle: most of the approaches to address obsolescence are opposed to the goals of industry and marketing. The overarching goal in any attempt to address obsolescence is to get consumers to keep and use their devices longer, which results in a decrease of sales.

 

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Collapse informatics and limits to growth

Basic theories that are often cited to undermine the exponential nature of obsolescence are Moore’s Law (Moore, 1965) or Jevons’ Paradox (Jevons, 1866). Moore’s Law states the observation that about every two years the number of transistors doubles, and a similar growth has been attributed to other measurable factors in technology development as well. Jevons’ Paradox (often referred to as “Rebound Effect”, e.g., Kaufman and Silberman, 2011) describes the effect that any increase in efficiency does not lead to a decrease but rather an increase in resource consumption, as the increased efficiency is met with an even higher increase in demand. Both theories are an almost paralyzing obstacle when tackling obsolescence. Although Moore’s Law faced many predictions of slowing down, recent engineering discoveries hint that it might continue far longer than expected (Yirka, 2013), destroying hope for an engineering-driven slowdown of technological advancement (which might indicate potential for reduced sales). Jevons’ Paradox represents an even more difficult issue: increased efficiency in the production process would lead to even more resource consumption due to the increased demand, which would jeopardize all efforts and yield the opposite result of what was desired (Kaufman and Silberman, 2011).

Those observations, combined with the aforementioned inherent problem of industry’s disinterest of resolving obsolescence, paint a depressing picture for the future of sustainability research. However, the basic assumption for observations such as Moore’s Law and Jevons’ Paradox are that growth is infinite. While early predictions of the end of Moore’s Law have been disproven, there is still agreement that it will not continue to go on infinitely as technological advancement will encounter a limit at some point. Similarly, the increase consumption of resources will hit a ceiling sooner or later, since all natural resources are limited. These limits have only been brought up in the debate in SHCI recently (Pargman and Raghavan, 2014; Tomlinson, et al., 2012), and its implications for research have not been discussed in-depth yet in all aspects of the field. Therefore, the question arises: how do those “non-negotiable limits” (Pargman and Raghavan, 2014) change and shape future SHCI research? In particular, how does the presence of limits affect the solutions to problems of obsolescence, as well as the discussion itself?

In this paper, we seek answers to this question by looking at some of the obsolescence-related research from the field of SHCI (Remy and Huang, 2015) in light of the concept of collapse informatics (Tomlinson, et al., 2012). In our opinion, collapse informatics does not carry the apocalyptic meaning its term might suggest at first glance, but rather presents a new lens for looking at SHCI research: instead of treating the future as a binary entity (a perfectly sustainable society or the end of the world) the more likely future probably lies on a continuum somewhere in between, with neither of those extremes ever becoming reality.

Another important insight from collapse informatics is that this future, whatever it may look like, will not arrive in an instant, but our society will slowly transition into it — and probably continue to undergo changes. Tomlinson, et al. argue that “there is a need for research in collapse informatics — the study, design, and development of sociotechnical systems in the abundant present for use in a future of scarcity”. Besides the development of systems — which would likely fall into the category of sustainability through design (Mankoff, et al., 2007) — there is just as much need to look at the design of products in light of sustainability in design (Mankoff, et al., 2007), especially with regard to the well-established concept of sustainable interaction design (SID) (Blevis, 2007). In the following, we will attempt to foreshadow what potential changes to SID are to be expected, how this affects obsolescence-related research in SHCI, and how existing contributions might be reinterpreted.

 

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Sustainable interaction design in a future of resource scarcity

Design for repair, re-use, and recycling

Many technological devices these days restrict the way users can repair the device or replace parts if hardware breaks or becomes outdated. For example, special tools are needed to open most smartphones, and replacing a battery is not possible without risking warranty for many phones, tablets, and computers. Maestri and Wakkary (2011) argue that technology should be designed such that everyday users can repair them — a vision which seems far-fetched given that most products have gone the other direction in recent years by restricting reparability, but might change entirely in a future of collapse. When resources are scarce, providing replaceable components might become a desirable new opportunity for business, and consumer-reparable devices will hopefully see a comeback.

If repairing is not an option, the device might also be re-used in an entirely new way beyond its intended purpose (Odom, et al., 2009) or even recycled entirely to harvest the scarce resources inside them. Kim and Paulos (2011) developed a design vocabulary for re-used, which could be extended or re-envisioned based on the future needs for particular parts in a device, or different purposes of the device. An example for that can be found in a study by Huh, et al. (2010), in which participants bought outdated and partially broken PDAs off eBay for the use as music player or cheap GPS navigation. A study in developing countries even suggests the possibility for large-scale re-use of old technology as displayed by TVCs (Lomas, et al., 2013), a low-cost game console built from computing parts that were as old as 30 years.

New luxury and longevity as a lifestyle choice

In our present world of virtually unlimited resources, at least from the consumer’s perspective, acquiring the newest piece of technology is often considered a desirable lifestyle choice (e.g., for early adopters, Hanks, et al., 2008). A future of collapse might see a different picture; there are already streams of different behavior present in today’s society, as exemplified by the Slow Movement (Grosse-Hering, et al., 2013; Hallnäs and Redström, 2001; Strauss and Fuad-Luke, 2008), but also upcoming projects such as the D4R laptop (Beigl, et al., 2013), Fairphone (n.d.), Phonebloks (n.d.), or Project Ara (n.d.). Although those are small projects that cannot compete with the large-scale industry that produces the majority of electronics, it hints that potentially sustainable options are already being developed. If the prevalent lifestyle choice were to change from early adopter, i.e., users striving to acquire the most recent technological advancement, to one in which it is desirable to own a device for a longer time span, such projects could become major milestones for a new product design paradigm.

Blevis, et al. (2007) go one step further and discuss the concept of New Luxury, which means that products are associated with a notion of luxury not because they are expensive and exclusive, but because of higher standards of quality while being not too expensive. In a future of scarcity, products that require a large amount of natural resources would automatically be expensive, thus never fall into the category of new luxury. Coincidentally, almost all of the design recommendations of how to realize and achieve new luxury seem to align perfectly with a future of collapse, e.g., “promoting services over new physical materials” or “promoting concern for secondary markets” (Blevis, et al., 2007). To some extent, the development proposed in their paper has already taken place — with the recent trend of cloud storage and digitalization of media distribution. However, many of the steps are still far from realization and contrary to current developments in technology design.

Attachment, ensoulment, and pleasure engineering

Another approach to address obsolescence is that of changing the inherent design values of products to foster a deep connection between the device and its owner. Many concepts have been proposed that share one commonality — a product that satisfies the user’s needs, addresses their desires, and creates a long-lasting connection to avoid early disposal. The underlying principle can be found in concepts such as attachment (Gegenbauer and Huang, 2012a, 2012b; Odom, et al., 2009), ensoulment (Blevis and Stolterman, 2007; Nelson and Stolterman, 2012), pleasure engineering (Woolley, 2003), or emotional design (Norman, 2004). Although this list (which is by no means exhaustive) highlights a large number of independent contributions that all hint the same solution to obsolescence, there is no sign of any of those concepts making its way into a successful, large-scale design principle to be found in electronics products. We can only speculate about the reasons, but one major obstacle obviously is that they all are contrary to industry’s and marketing’s goals, as discussed earlier.

It is safe to assume that in a future of collapse, companies still want to sell products, therefore the question remains: how can all those concepts — that certainly align with the sustainability requirements for a future in which consumers should hold on to their devices longer than it is currently the case — be brought together with industry’s goals? We believe that the answer to this question is hinted at in SHCI research as well, such as by Blevis, et al. (2007), Blevis, 2008), or Gegenbauer and Huang (2012a, 2012b): by promoting services over products. This would present a major shift for many companies, but might be an inevitable change to which there is no alternative, similar to what we have seen for the development of music and movie distribution in the past.

 

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Transitioning into a future of limits

As Tomlinson, et al. (2012) point out, a future of collapse and limits does not appear in an instance but a society slowly transitions into it. While collapse cannot be measured exactly but rather observed in, a societal system will undergo changes to adapt to this future of limits in which the traditional, wasteful lifestyle cannot be maintained anymore. Some commentators in scientific communities, such as a number of the participants at the LIMITS 2015 workshop, argue that we are already seeing signs of collapse in or society today. At the same time, some of the concepts proposed in this paper that address product design in a future of collapse seem to be hard to realize in the immediate future, especially because they do not align well with industry’s interest.

Therefore, we argue that in a phase of transitioning of a future of collapse there is potential for industry to slowly start a shift from products to services, as they rely less on (ultimately limited) material resources. As an example, consider the first concept proposed in this paper, design for repair and reuse: the idea of “everyone being a repairer” (Maestri and Wakkary, 2011) might have its limits since not everyone might have the technical knowledge required or the desire to acquire such knowledge and execute it themselves. However, if bringing your device to a local repair shop were to be significantly cheaper than buying a new one and offers other benefits (e.g., minor hardware or software upgrades), it could yield new opportunities for businesses. Maintaining those repair shops, training the repairers, and selling the exchangeable parts could replace the current paradigm of throwaway devices as significant source of revenue for hardware manufacturers.

 

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Conclusion

Limited resources in a future of scarcity and collapse represent a future that is often perceived scary, negative, and difficult — and sometimes even described as almost apocalyptic. While the scenarios in this future certainly come with restrictions and severe changes in our everyday life as well as for industry, these changes also imply that we have to rethink our approach to research, in particular in the field of SHCI. For the particular problem of obsolescence, this future even holds a positive aspect: the motivation to finally implement concepts that have been developed and refined over many years in our still relatively young field. With the potential changes to consumer’s perception towards technology acquisition, industry’s goals and focus on production, and the inevitable scarcity of resources, old concepts that were deemed to be unrealistic might become viable and new approaches might arise.

In this paper, we made a first attempt to look at those potential changes and its impact on some of the concepts that can be found in today’s SHCI research. However, this can only be the start of a discussion on many levels: How do we approach the transition phase in which all parties — consumers, developers, and researchers — undergo a paradigm change? Which concepts can be applied “as is”, which concepts have to be refined, and which concept have to be completely reworked? What are the limits to those concepts — are they all feasible in all possible futures, or depend on a particular state of resource scarcity or societal change? Those and other questions can not only inform the research of today, but even create entirely new fields of research in the future — whatever this future might hold for us. End of article

 

About the authors

Christian Remy is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Informatics at the University of Zurich.
E-mail: remy [at] ifi [dot] uzh [dot] ch

Elaine M. Huang is an Associate Professor of Human-Computer Interaction and head of the People and Computing Lab in the Department of Informatics at the University of Zurich.
E-mail: huang [at] ifi [dot] uzh [dot] ch

 

Acknowledgments

We thank the reviewers, organizers, and all attendees of the LIMITS 2015 workshop for their helpful and valuable feedback.

 

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Editorial history

Received 15 July 2015; accepted 23 July 2015.


Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Christian Remy and Elaine M. Huang. All Rights Reserved.

Limits and sustainable interaction design: Obsolescence in a future of collapse and resource scarcity
by Christian Remy and Elaine M. Huang.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 8 - 3 August 2015
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/6122/4841
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v20i8.6122





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