Tech by VICE

AirPods Are a Tragedy

Apple claims that AirPods are building a “wireless future.” Many people think they're a symbol of disposable wealth. The truth is bleaker.

by Caroline Haskins
May 6 2019, 1:36pm

Image: Fossil by Heartless Machine. Photograph by Jason Koebler. 

In each article of this column, we'll focus on one item that could conceivably be discovered by someone 1,000 years from now, and try to explain where this item came from, where it's going, and what its existence explains about our current moment.

AirPods are a product of the past.

They're plastic, made of some combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, and sulfur. They’re tungsten, tin, tantalum, lithium, and cobalt.

The particles that make up these elements were created 13.8 billion years ago, during the Big Bang. Humans extract these elements from the earth, heat them, refine them. As they work, humans breathe in airborne particles, which deposit in their lungs. The materials are shipped from places like Vietnam, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, and India, to factories in China. A literal city of workers creates four tiny computing chips and assembles them into a logic board. Sensors, microphones, grilles, and an antenna are glued together and packaged into a white, strange-looking plastic exoskeleton.

These are AirPods. They’re a collection of atoms born at the dawn of the universe, churned beneath the surface of the earth, and condensed in an anthropogenic parallel to the Big Crunch—a proposed version of the death of the universe where all matter shrinks and condenses together. Workers are paid unlivable wages in more than a dozen countries to make this product possible. Then it’s sold by Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company, for $159 USD.

For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they're glued together. They can’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separate the lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit, which does electronics teardowns and sells repair tools and parts, told Motherboard that AirPods are “evil.” According to the headphones review team at Rtings.com, AirPods are "below-average" in terms of sound quality. According to people on every social media platform, AirPods are a display of wealth.

But more than a pair of headphones, AirPods are an un-erasable product of culture and class. People in working or impoverished economic classes are responsible for the life-threatening, exhaustive, violent work of removing their parts from the ground and assembling them. Meanwhile, people in the global upper class design and purchase AirPods.

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Image: Screenshot from Twitter/@dnanian.

Even if you only own AirPods for a few years, the earth owns them forever. When you die, your bones will decompose in less than a century, but the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose for at least a millennium. Thousands of years in the future, if human life or sentient beings exist on earth, maybe archaeologists will find AirPods in the forgotten corners of homes. They’ll probably wonder why they were ever made, and why so many people bought them. But we can also ask ourselves those same questions right now.

Why did we make technology that will live for 18 months, die, and never rot?

THE SOCIAL LIFE OF AIRPODS

AirPods aren’t the most expensive pair of wireless earbuds on the market. Some luxury wireless earbuds cost upwards of $730. Other companies like Sennheiser sell wireless earbuds for $300. Bose sells its pair for about $200.

Mark Henny, the head of headphone reviews for Rtings.com, said that the AirPods offer a lot of value for the price point despite a rating of "below average" sound quality. “You also have much cheaper models, but for the quality of the craftsmanship of the AirPods, from the case to the actual earbuds, and also for the reliable wireless connection, the battery life—the price of the AirPods is actually pretty fair,” Henny told Motherboard.

And yet, at least on social media, AirPods have become a meme that automatically inducts owners into the bourgeoisie.

Part of the joke may have to do with the fact that AirPods are, well, tiny. They’re incredibly easy to lose, or accidentally launder with your clothes. By virtue of their size alone, AirPods are a risky purchase. AirPods communicate that you can afford to buy them, but also lose them.

There’s an irony here, since you can’t ethically or practically repair, recycle, or throw away AirPods. They’re two small, untethered objects that hang from a person's ear and are designed to be worn at any time—especially when you’re commuting, walking, or exercising. Lots of people lose their AirPods.

But let’s say you don’t lose your AirPods, and instead, you throw them in the trash when they stop holding their charge. The AirPods don’t just go away. They become someone else’s problem. Then, long after you’re dead, AirPods will still be sitting, and not decomposing, in the crust of the earth.

Owning AirPods embodies what it means to be “rich” in the same way as this picture of Kanye West haphazardly holding his laptop.

Before, the idea of expendable wealth was limited to the likes of multimillionaires like West. But now, AirPods have normalized the idea that anyone can demonstrate expendable wealth to the world. If you’re “courageous” enough to invest in a pair of AirPods, there’s a sense that losing them is not a big deal. On TikTok, this sentiment fueled a meme in which people pretend to flush their AirPods down the toilet.

Another common AirPod meme is some iteration of “Oh my god, they have AirPods in, they can’t hear us, oh my god,” featuring a picture of someone approaching a life-ending situation. The joke suggests that people who wear AirPods act as if they’re celebrities, detached and elevated from their environment, and too good to listen to those around them. In reality, AirPods have pretty poor noise isolation (Rtings.com gave AirPods a grim score of 3.6 out of 10 on that quality.)

The meme also suggests that people who wear AirPods never want to take them off. They want to show the world that they’re wealthy, even if it leads to their demise. It’s a way of poking fun at the rich and labeling their lives as disposable.

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Image: Dopl3r.com.

Compared to other wireless earbuds, AirPods are visually distinct. While many brands opt for subtlety and make their earbuds black and antennaless, Apple made a product that looks like the head of an electric toothbrush.

Early AirPod reviews called the product “dorky” and described its appearance as “controversial.” But even if AirPods are strange-looking, they’re incredibly conspicuous and instantly recognizable. Being willing to ignore the weird appearance of AirPods makes a statement: if you’re okay with overlooking how strange-looking they are, then you must be somewhat proud to be wearing them.

In reality, most people aren’t actively trying to make a statement by wearing AirPods. Practically speaking, there are valid reasons to own AirPods: Unlike other Bluetooth headphones, they connect instantly to the iPhone. Also, since Apple removed the headphone jack, normal wired headphones can only be used with a small, easy-to-lose dongle (or Apple’s proprietary Lightning headphones.)

Some people have actively embraced the distinct appearance of AirPods. For instance, Twitter user @bloodorgy made AirPod earrings called “Airrings,” which she’s selling for $20.

Dozens of Etsy merchants sell knock-off cases for AirPods featuring the logos of luxury companies like Gucci, Louis Vuitton, and Supreme. (All of these products are counterfeit. None of these companies actually make AirPod accessories that fall within the Apple canon of official products.)

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Image: Screenshot from a now-removed Etsy listing of $36 Supreme casing for an AirPod case.

AirPod owners often acknowledge the status that AirPods project, but resist the notion that they demonstrate disposable wealth, or wealth generally. “I go to a very spoiled school, which is partly why I wanted AirPods, so I'd fit in better,” Reddit user CrispViolet, who identified as Ally, told Motherboard. Ally has posted in the AirPod-focused subreddit, r/airpods.

Ally also said that they don’t think AirPods demonstrate wealth. “Some of my friends don't have AirPods because they have more expensive headphones used for gaming,” Ally said. “I do find the memes funny though, and honestly the AirPod sound isn't very good, as it should be for its price.”

Another redditor, weab00, told Motherboard in a direct message that they got AirPods for Christmas. “There’s definitely something to be said about how it makes you look basic and like you want to be trendy, but I personally use them for their convenience.”

“In fact, sometimes I get a bit self conscious because I’m afraid people will think I’m bougie, which is partly because Reddit can be pretty toxic about them,” they added. “They’re so common that wearing them is not even a flex at this point. Literally everyone is LA has a pair.”

The disposability of AirPods mirrors the fact that they were built upon disposable labor.

Disposable labor refers to the workers who are subject to the whims of what capitalists call the “invisible hand of the market.” When there’s demand for a product or service, these people have work. When there isn’t, these people don’t. These could be contractors, part-time workers, or low-wage blue collar workers who are treated like a “replaceable part of the production process,” as explained by socialist writers Fred and Harry Magdoff in an article for the Monthly Review.

Every electronic product is the culmination of international labor from mines, refinery facilities, and assembly facilities, usually from underpaid workers. Thousands and thousands of people work in dozens of countries around the world—including, but not limited to, Brazil, Indonesia, Taiwan, Thailand, China, Malaysia, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, India, the Philippines, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Russia, Japan, Germany, Belgium, Estonia, Macedonia, Korea, Canada, and Netherlands—in order to extract and refine the materials used to make modern electronics.

There’s a human cost to all of this. Consider Foxconn—the Chinese company that assembles an estimated half of all iPhones, according to Business Insider, as well as other Apple products. (Luxshare and Investec assemble AirPods.) Foxconn has a factory in Zhengzhou that’s sometimes referred to as “iPhone City.” According to reporting by Business Insider from May 2018, about 350,000 people work in these facilities. Salaries start at $300 per month. And for years, Apple sourced cobalt and tantalum—which are used to power lithium-ion batteries and protect conductors on logic boards, respectively—from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Only after extensive reports of child labor, worker injuries, and worker deaths did Apple stop sourcing these materials from small mines in the DRC specifically.

Consumers aren’t supposed to know or think about these stories. Apple doesn’t want us to know the details of the supply chain.

Marx argued that commodities—or products meant to satisfy “wants”—don’t derive their value from their use. That’s because by definition, they aren’t necessary for basic survival. Rather, they derive value from the invisible labor that goes into making them. Apple’s products take value from dirt, blood, sweat, and tears you don’t see on its clean, white packaging. They take value from human aches, pains, and fatigue.

Commodities like AirPods are social products. AirPods display the social message of wealth because AirPods derive their value from the invisible, social chain of production that’s necessary to make them in the first place.

APPLE’S STORY OF THE AIRPOD

According to Apple, AirPods are part of a larger vision for a “wireless future.” The Apple website introduces AirPods by stating, "Wireless headphones. Finally untangled." Wires, Apple argues, are a burden. Thus, AirPods are a product of liberation.

It’s true that wires are, arguably, annoying. They get tangled. They snag on things. They flap around when you’re exercising. The plastic casing around the wires are often prone to tearing, exposing the wire, and rendering the headphones useless. But Apple’s sales pitch of liberation is not so straightforward. AirPods were introduced in 2016 alongside the debut of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, which eliminated the headphone jack. The earbuds are designed to seamlessly switch from iPhone to MacBook to Apple Watch, depending on which device you’re using.

Thus, AirPods strategically glue together an ecosystem of luxury products. They are only so “convenient” because, by eliminating the headphone jack, Apple made the iPhone less user-friendly.

Destroying the mild nuisance of headphone jacks comes at two costs: One, it locks people into a system of limited, compatible, proprietary products that are inevitably going to die in a few years. And two, it creates a dilemma at the product’s end of life. If you try to recycle AirPods, a worker at a recycling plant will have to engage in the risky and mundane task of separating the glued-in lithium-ion battery from the plastic. If you try to throw AirPods away, you run the risk of starting a fire in a garbage compactor facility. And if AirPods wind up in a landfill, the earth will embed the earbuds into its crust for at least a thousand years.

AirPods were destined to become e-waste from the moment they were manufactured. And AirPods become e-waste after just eighteen months, when the irreplaceable lithium ion battery dies.

“I would put this in the planned obsolescence category of products, but it’s not really planned obsolescence, it’s planned failure,” Wiens told Motherboard. “When they made these products, they knew they were only gonna last for 18 months. They didn’t put that on the outside of the box, knowing that the battery is not replaceable, and here we are.”

AirPods are disposable products that are also impossible to throw away.

Sound has always been important to Apple—at least, from a marketing perspective. The company fundamentally changed music distribution with the creation of the iPod and the digital music marketplace iTunes, which fueled the proliferation of the MP3. Bright white headphones were the focal point of iPod advertisements through the mid-2000s.

But Apple has never sold AirPods as the best-sounding headphones in the world. In a two-minute AirPod promotional video, the actual audio quality of the product isn’t mentioned until the second-to-last sentence. (“And of course, the new wireless AirPods deliver incredible sound.”) The core of Apple’s AirPods marketing is the fact that they’re wireless.

“There’s so much technology packed into each AirPod,” Apple's vice president of marketing Philip Schiller said when he first introduced AirPods. “There’s the chip, there’s the dual accelerometers, optical sensors, beamforming microphones, antennas, batteries—it is a technical tour de force in this minute little AirPod.”

What makes AirPods perform better with iPhones than other wireless headphones is its W1 wireless chip, which does three things:

  • It helps the earbuds communicate with your phone, computer, and with each other.
  • It enables fast device pairing, without needing to go into iOS system preferences.
  • It makes AirPods compatible with Siri, and able to make phone calls.

But the underlying technology that makes AirPods possible is Bluetooth (or using radio waves to send data like sound from device to device). Jim Kardach—a now-retired Intel employee who gave “Bluetooth” its name—told Motherboard that Bluetooth was conceived to be “your people’s wireless,” since Bluetooth capabilities are so cheap. Yet companies that want to sell luxury often sell Bluetooth technology as if it’s expensive.

Apple did not return Motherboard's requests for comment.

Kardach told Motherboard that he thinks about this when he sees advertisements for luxury cars advertising built-in Bluetooth. “This Jaguar is a super expensive car and they can brag about almost anything,” Kardach said. “The cost of putting that Bluetooth radio into the Jaguar probably cost them about a dollar, yet it’s one of the three things that they talk about when they advertise.”

AirPods have a regular Bluetooth antenna in the stalk below the earbud area. In and of itself, it’s straightforward wireless technology that’s been around for twenty years.

HARALD BLUETOOTH, SON OF GORM

Kardach named Bluetooth technology after Harald Bluetooth, a Viking king who ruled Denmark in the first century AD. According to Kardach, the goal of Bluetooth technology was to unite radio, cellular, and digital technologies. Similarly, King Bluetooth united ancient Denmark and Norway, creating one Scandinavian kingdom.

“I went to my marketing guy and I said, ‘hey, we should call this program Bluetooth,’ he says ‘you’re crazy,’” Kardach said. “I said, ‘Yeah, look at this runing stone.’ I had outlined Harald Bluetooth in a Sharpie. I had scanned it and printed it out and outlined it with a Sharpie and he said, ‘Ooh that’s good. Can you put a cellphone and a notebook in his hand?’ And I drew a cellphone and a notebook. And he said ‘Oh that’s perfect, we’ve gotta do this.’”

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Image: Jim Kardach

Bluetooth technology was inspired by archaeology, and stories of the past. Now, it’s being used to create products like AirPods: Technology that was designed to live for a few months, stop working, and sit in the earth long after we’re gone.

Of course, AirPods aren’t unique. Many of the products that we use daily were built to become trash, and eventually fossils. Single-use plastics—like water bottles, coffee cups, plastic packaging—are cheap for companies and convenient for consumers. They also, largely, end up floating in the ocean and littering ocean floors. Some scientists have even started to refer to the present as the Plasticine. Electronics are no different. For companies like Apple, product repairability hurts the bottom line, so the company has lobbied against right-to-repair efforts and collaborated with Amazon to boot iPhone and Macbook refurbishers off the Amazon marketplace.

On a global scale, our economic system is predicated on a disregard for longevity, because it’s more profitable for companies to make products that die than it is to make products that last.

So sure, AirPods aren’t the most expensive earbuds on the market, and the jokes that the product is a display of wealth are largely tongue-in-cheek. But in truth, AirPods are a symbol of wealth. They’re physical manifestations of a global economic system that allows some people to buy and easily lose $160 headphones, and leaves other people at risk of death to produce those products. If AirPods are anything, they’re future fossils of capitalism.

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