What’s wrong with our current phones:
Phones are coming under a lot of scrutiny at the moment. Much of the excitement and thrill that came with the paradigm changing announcement of the iPhone, the first true smartphone, has worn thin. We are now looking at phones with a more critical eye, and an increasing amount does not like what we are seeing. The knowledge that phone apps are being designed, everything from the attention demanding notifications to the colour schemes and layouts, are done so by the same people that designed slot machines to be addictive. Our lizard brains are being targeted to ensure that our attention and action are devoted to the behavioral data hungry machine that powers most of the webs current infrastructure.
Even when not in use, the battery of sensors that help our smartphones act as such versatile tools are also used to produce metrics and build user data profiles at all times. The recent findings that android phones still collect and report user location even when the GPS aerial displays as off in the user settings is deeply troubling.
Slowly but surely we see more and more studies showing a correlation between smartphone uses and worsening mental health. Stress, dissatisfaction, reduced ability to concentrate and worry seem to be the end result of our current Smartphone usage.
There is also the cyclical nature of smartphone renewal we all seem to be stuck in. We are pushed to replace our 2 year old devices in a cycle that is both extremely wasteful of limited resources and locks people into high monthly financial obligations. (This does not even touch upon the conditions of the people used to mine and construct the devices). I recently tried to see how long I could hold off on replacing what at the time was a perfectly good smartphone. I had paid it off in full and so was on a very cheap contract. It was in three months of paying off this device that troubles started to set in. The battery life, which had previously been fine began to quickly degrade. The USB port also began to break. Due to the sealed design the process and price for getting this phone fixed was extremely prohibitive.
Planned obsolescence in phones is terrifying. Not just in the lack of security and feature updates to software from vendors, but just the inbuilt lifetime of the quality of the components.
Yet, I do not think smartphones themselves are the cause of this.
We hold in our hands and pockets a portal that at any time, can connect us to the greatest pool of human knowledge there has ever been. They allow us to connect and maintain human friendships with people we never would have met before and find tribes of people we belong to impossible 20 years ago.
To have a healthy relationship with our smartphone I believe we need to fundamentally Re-think what capabilities we actually want our phones to have, and will elaborate on this in detail as I go through the elements of the hypothetical new phone.
Having a smartphone is not the fundamental problem. The fact they are part of a system that demands feeding to maintain the illusion of infinite growth. But what could smartphones be like In a solarpunk vision of the world?
Let’s start with the screen:
The screen is the most energy demanding part of the phone, and the power needed for modern LCD and AMOLD screens makes up the lion’s share of the demand on the battery. Also, use of these screens can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm by blasting blue-white light at our retinas long past sunset. So lets do something radical. Lets get rid of the full colour, ultra sharp 4k screen and replace it with black and white. Specifically with an E-ink screen.
E-ink screens turn device battery life from hours to days. Whilst a working smartphone will of course be driven a lot harder than your average eReader, I am sure the gains will still be highly impressive. There is also the secondary function that the limitations a black and white screen with a much lower refresh rate would impose; apps would be far more limited in their ability to stimulate the brain in the way they currently do. No bright warning colours for notifications, no slick refresh animations that tricks you into feeling involved. The phone would once again become a pure information reading device.
Right now the choices for a chipset for mobile devices are pretty dire. Hardware for mobile telephony is heavily proprietary. As anyone who has tried to get a custom ROM for their android phone knows the pain Rom developers go through to get get passed propriety access to bootloaders, cameras and other components. A Solarpunk phone would have chipsets that are open and non propriety. People have already started building dumbphones from Raspberry pi boards, and I think the Solarpunk phone could build on this with a board built to fit better in a smartphone form-factor. I also think a great idea would be an empty port for upgrade modals. A new sensor or such could be added at a later date. This would allow for upgrades in capability without needing to replace a whole phone.
The battery would be the most interesting part. Firstly, lets bring back the removable battery. Being able to upgrade the battery and exchange it when it starts to degrade and send it in to be safely recycled without trashing the whole phone would be a great improvement.
The most important new feature I would want to add would be replacing the back of the phone with a mini solar panel. Think, how often do you find your phone running low on charge and needing to be tethered to a nearby plug socket? With the lowered power consumption thanks to the e-Ink screen, a solar panel charger would go a lot further. With moderating usage and improvements in solar tech its not unfeasible you could have a phone that would, theoretically, never need to draw from the grid again.
The OS would have to be open source. Now technically Android can fit this description, but unfortunately with googles attempts to push their propriety play service as the core of the android experience, its turned android into a data sucking, privacy destroying farce.
Now you could use an android fork, like linage OS, that strips out googles services by default. Or you could go for an entirely new OS,like the Linux based plasma OS. I think the ideal is the phones owner can decide. In the same way you can load whatever OS you want onto a laptop, phones and tablets should be made to host any OS the user chooses to put on it. The watchword of the phone, both software and hardware should be freedom.
Whilst I hope that this post may spark people thinking and inspire some home-brew phone projects there is an option today that, although they miss a lot of the features I want in the solarpunk phone, they are a huge step in the right direction and really take a swipe against planed obsolescence and support the right to repair and the right to privacy. I talk of course of the fair-phone project, which can be found here: https://www.fairphone.com/
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