The End of Hardware

The devil of rapid hardware obsolescence.
The devil of rapid hardware obsolescence.

“Nothing is so hideous as an obsolete fashion.”
– Stendhal

The first decade of the 2000s saw the shift from desktop computing to hand-held mobile computing, and from wired internet to WiFi. This revolution was driven primarily by advances in hardware. The BlackBerry was the first successful product in the hand-held market, but the iPhone and Android platforms are the products that really changed the whole computing and internet landscape. Still today, more attention is to paid to what new iteration of the iPhone, iPad or Samsung Galaxy will be released than to new releases of the operating systems. For a company to be innovative, there is still a perception that you need a piece of new hardware. This will not continue to be there case, and it can’t. At a certain point, and it will not be too far in the future, Moore’s Law (which states that the number of transistors on a circuit doubles approximately every two years) will run into the same inhibitions that we will all run into: a planet of diminishing resources.

One of the categories of resources that is already showing signs of hindering technology development is the scarcity of rare metals. Tellurium, used to make advanced electronic components, is three times more scarce than gold. The list of rare metals in your smart phone, including lithium, platinum, and neodymium goes on and on, and overall roughly 97% of all rare earth metals come from China. These materials are difficult to extract, and there isn’t very much of them. That’s why they’re rare.

Another resource we’re running out of is oil, or more broadly fossil fuels. While it’s true that we can extract more of it from harder to get sources such as tar sands and the arctic sea bed, and there are large deposits of natural gas in Qatar and coal deposits in the US and Australia, there are two really big problems. First is that we’re in the era of peak oil, meaning sometime this decade (some experts say we’ve already passed it, some say not quite yet) world oil production will start to decline and will never go back up again, because we’re running out of it. The second problem is that our overconsumption of fossil fuels is quite literally killing us, via pollution to a lesser degree but to a really greater degree by causing global climate disruption. Hurricanes and typhoons are increasing in frequency and strength, summer heat waves are hotter and more frequent, winter storms are colder and more ferocious, some areas of the world are experiencing more flooding while others are experiencing more drought, and sea levels are starting to rise because the ice caps are melting. Climate disruption, from a scientific standpoint, is not a matter of opinion or debate, it’s happening right now.

Moore’s Law, and in general an industry where innovation is tied to planned rapid obsolescence such that every one to two years we are expected to throw away our old hardware devices and buy new ones, is unsustainable. Recycling old electronics is important, but even that is energy intensive and is only less unsustainable.

Theodore Twombly sits at his monitor, in a future where there are no devices, only the digital cloud. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.
Theodore Twombly sits at his monitor, in a future where there are no devices, only interface points to the digital cloud. Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment.

I recently watched the Spike Jonze film Her, in which a lonely man who lives in the not-too-distant future develops a romantic relationship with his new artificially intelligent operating system. If you’re a designer, you should see this film. It’s exquisitely designed and in so many ways is a plausible extrapolation of how many social and technological trends today may evolve in the future. One of the things I found most prescient in this film’s vision of the future was how little everyone was focused on their hardware. Computers were just white picture frame screens. Little folding pocket folios with a built-in camera, and a wireless earpiece, kept you connected with your digital life all the time. There were no keyboards or mice. Interaction with computers was mainly through voice recognition, and a little bit through gestures made on any surface in front of your screen, similar to the gestures we use now for our iPhones or Android Phones. The only devices visible in the film weren’t really devices, they were only connection and interface points. There were no computers or smart phones. Everything was in the digital cloud.

This is where innovation in the future will happen. It’s where it will half to happen. As designers we can’t stop it, and in fact we have a certain moral obligation to drive it, to drive innovation away from the wasteful cycle of almost disposable handheld hardware towards cloud based operating systems and apps. The next revolutionary device won’t be a device at all, it’ll be a concept in the cloud that changes the way we interact with it. The designers and companies who can crack the cycle of instantly obsolete, energy and resource intense devices, and make the physical device itself obsolete, will be at the forefront of the next revolution.

Information for parts of this article came from “Where To Find Rare Earth Elements” by Dr. Ainissa Ramirez on PBS’s Nova Next: