Your phone uses the equivalent of two refrigerators' worth of electricity every year.
No, charging your phone doesn't suck up as much energy as your TV, Apple TV, your fridge, or your vacuum does. But if you add in all of the electricity required to store and move data across high-speed cable and wireless networks and climate-controlled server farms to deliver an hour of video to your phone each week, in the space of a year it adds up to more power than two new Energy Star refrigerators consume in the same time.
The estimate, from a 2013 report by the U.S. National Mining Association and the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity—is a controversial one, but perhaps no estimate of the energy impact of our electronics use isn't: measuring the aggregate impact of the supply chain and infrastructure behind your phone across its life cycle is a very difficult thing to do.
Perhaps the only uncontroversial estimate is zero, which is generally what we may be tempted to think it is. "The harm I'm doing every day with all my stuff my highly digital electronic carbon-filled lifestyle, the damage I'm doing is just invisible to me," says Douglas Rushkoff, professor of technology and media studies, on his new podcast, Team Human, which we're featuring on this special episode of Radio Motherboard.
The past decade has brought some big efforts to measure that impact better, and to pressure tech companies to lighten it. In addition to industry efforts to improve environmental, labor and mining standards (see, for instance, the situation in the Congo), there are also efforts like the Fairphone, with its unusual social, environmental, and ethical standards, and groups like iFixit that are trying to cultivate a culture of DIY electronics repair, even as electronics get smaller and harder to open up.
And yet, sometimes it's hard to tell how much us electronics users care. When Apple released its last sustainability report, the internet appeared to pay more attention to a mention of "MacOS"—evidence that Apple was changing the name of its operating system—than to the report itself, which included the company's new estimates for the lifespan of its products (an OS X or tvOS device is expected to last about four years, while an iOS or watchOS device gets a three year lifespan).
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Political economist of media Richard Maxwell explores the impacts of electronics—and how we think and talk about them—in a world that we tend to think of, incorrectly, as "post industrial."
"I like to say when I look at these technologies, like a smartphone," Maxwell tells Rushkoff, "totally clean—you could eat off of it.
"But a better representation of a smartphone would be if the thing had an exhaust pipe, little puffs of smoke coming out of the back of it, because really it's connected still to the old fashioned industrial supply chain. If you become aware of that—it's still hard to comprehend—but it's invisibility has partly to do with the enchantment we have with advanced technology, which appears to a lot of people like magic."
In this excerpt from the Team Human podcast, Maxwell, who holds the chair of media studies at Queens College, talks about the impact our electronics have in the planet. It's a topic Motherboard has explored a lot, and it's an especially poignant one as the new iPhone comes out this week. By certain standards, it's going to be the most environmentally friendly iPhone yet, I suspect. And yet, as as Maxwell points out, the most environmentally friendly phone is probably the one you're holding right now.
Douglas Rushkoff is author most recently of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus. Richard Maxwell is author of the book Greening the Media with Toby Miller, with whom he shares a column at Psychology Today, and is editor of volumes like The Routledge Companion to Labor and Media and Media and the Ecological Crisis.