Hopping Off The New-Device Treadmill

We have Slow Food, Slow Money, and even Slow Programming. Where is the outcry for a Slow Smartphone movement?

Hopping Off The New-Device Treadmill
[Illustration: Kirsten Ulve]

My iPhone is getting smaller. At least it feels that way, thanks to the Theory of Device Re­l­ativity, which holds that as the phones of those around you grow in size, yours shrinks in stature. My reasons for holding on to my existing model were practical and moral rather than financial (with a contract extension, I can have a new device for a modest fee). First, my current phone works just fine, except for this annoying bug where I continue to receive emails despite not wanting any. More troubling is the increasingly inescapable sense that if I get a new phone just because I can, I am accelerating the suffering of the people who make them.


Living as both a Good Person and a Good Consumer has never been easier. I can meet the people who grow my food, patronize restaurants that offer their workers a living wage, buy clothing that’s responsibly manufactured, and, wherever possible, support companies whose environmental practices line up with my values. Conscious consumption has become natural in many parts of my life—but it’s still too hard with technology.

I was reminded of this while following the fundraising campaign for the forthcoming documentary film Who Pays the Price? The Human Cost of Electronics. These magical devices on which we depend expose workers in the developing world to conditions and chemicals that lead to leukemia and suicide. Although Apple, in response to increasing pressure, has been a leader in advocating for doing away with the most harmful solvents such as benzene and n-hexane, the conditions surrounding the manufacture of technology products remain shameful.

According to Who Pays the Price?, an additional $1 per device would eliminate the need for harmful chemicals when making new smartphones. Surely we can afford that. What will it take to bring about such change?

  • Expand our smugness.

    If hipsters can make it cool to dress like blacksmiths or 1940s librarians, can they lord three-year-old phones over us? Can we hire the kale marketers to work their magic on cruelty-free electronics?

  • Inspire activist investors.

    The label “activist investor” can mean more than just a raider looking to score his next quick windfall. Someone should make the phrase more than an oxymoron. Like investors.

  • Embrace the power of suggestion.

    When our backseat taxicab screens suggest a tip, we give drivers more money. Our phone preorders should prompt us to “Add $5 to show some decency for goodness’ sake!”

  • Stickers!

    Marketers and consumers love them, so if the factory workers who make a certain phone get more than 20 minutes of sunlight a day, let’s allow the manufacturer to put a little smiley face on the packaging!

  • Slow down.

    Given the choice of the iPhone 6 versus the iPhone 6 Plus, I found it easiest to pick the iPhone I already owned. There were far fewer billboards and Jimmy Fallon–Justin Timberlake TV ads promoting my option, but this choice freed up my mind to focus on more important decisions. Like whether to buy a persimmon or a pomegranate from the farmers’ market.