Elaine Huang of Motorola Labs presented my favorite paper at CHI so far—Breaking down the Disposable Technology Paradigm for Sustainable Interaction Design for Mobile Phones. She vividly illustrated the built in life cycle of mobile devices by walking the audience through a scenario where a user bought a new phone whenever their contract with a carrier expired or a new stylish phone was released. One of the research participants from Elaine’s research study said it best, “I didn’t really want a new phone, but I got one anyway.”
Why are we disposing mobile phones so quickly? Elaine pointed out this is a growing sentiment around all personal electronic devices, not just phones. She referenced the work of Mark Weisser, whose research supports the idea that that devices that don’t have a strong sense of ownership get left around.
A disposable culture around mobile phones
We perceive mobile phones (as well as many personal consumer electronic devices) as disposable and don’t understand the impact of our decisions on the environment.
We don’t know how to dispose of mobile phones
We know what to do with a car when we are done with it (sell it), but we don’t know what to do with a mobile device. Most of the participants in Elaine’s study kept their old phones—some with as many as five.
426,000 mobile phones are decommissioned daily in the United States, which is a truly astonishing number. Elaine shared some interesting design ideas for both helping users understand how to dispose of their phones and designing phones to be more reconfigurable so that users would keep their mobile devices longer.
Elaine added that mobile business models reinforce this disposable perception.
The real challenge is business reform. Volume allows mobile handset manufacturers and carriers to remain profitable. While horrible for the environment, the built-in replacement life cycle drives handset sales. Although almost all handset manufacturers are making moves to be more reliant on software and services for profit, whether or not those strategies will lead to profitability remains to be seen.
Elaine believes there is a market for high-quality phones that will last exists, and I certainly think that markets like India reinforce her idea. However, it is clear that business reform and the creation of new business models will be necessary to help solve this problem.
In the meantime, if you are like me and have 1, 2, or even five “decommissioned” mobile phones lying around in drawers at home, here are some ways you can dispose of them:
Contact the Manufacturer