Mobile phone madness

ap525270798639Early this afternoon, while strolling around downtown Bethesda, Md., near my home, I saw two people sharing a table at an outdoor cafe, both staring at their phones; pedestrians crossing streets while texting; driver after driver holding phones; and a young woman on a bike, talking on the phone. People say “wearable technology will be part of our future but it strikes me that people are already all but surgically attached to their phones.

It’s hard to remember a time when most people didn’t carry mobile phones but, in fact, it wasn’t that long ago: the late 1990s.* Now that mobile technology is ubiquitous, cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have to work harder to sell new phones. This explains the TV and Internet ads you have surely seen this summer, touting more frequent upgrades.

That marketing campaign is the topic of my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Can you remember life without a cellphone? In the late 1990s, only one in five Americans had one. Today, there are 102 active mobile phonesor connected tablets for every 100 Americans, according to CTIA, The Wireless Association.

This is a problem for the cellphone industry. Now that the industry has sold a phone or tablet to just about everyone in the US, the challenge is to sell more of them, more often, by persuading people to get rid of the perfectly good ones they now possess and upgrade to the new new thing.

It’s a classic example of consumerism run amok. Surely you’ve seen the marketing, which has exploded in recent months on TV and online.

“Two years is too long to wait for a new phone!” says T-Mobile, which recently introducing a replacement program called Jump! “Upgrade to the phone you want twice every 12 months, not once every two years.”

About 152 million cell phones were discarded in 2010, according to EPA. Only about 10 percent of those were recycled. Most end up in desk drawers, attics or, worst of all, landfills. What can be done? Read the column.

A pile of mobile phone

*For the record, I bought my first cell phone in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I love my iPhone. It’s a marvelous device. But I try to remember that I lived most of the life without one.


  1. says


    When companies talk about embedding something in their DNA, they often start with language, such as mission and vision statements. I suggest we stop call ourselves “users” rather than “consumers.”

  2. ed maibach says

    I too love my mobile phone. But I fear it (and fear other people’s mobile phones) as well.
    When it comes to traffic safety, and pedestrian safety, the margin of error between a close call and a fatal or life-altering crash has always been small. Mobile devices used while driving, riding and walking further reduce that marigin of error to a dangerous degree. Myself, I’m hoping to see smart new public policies that are up to the challenge of limiting these risks from our smart new phones.

  3. Patricia Hambrick says

    My definition of vacation is when I don’t have cell/wifi coverage. It’s a shame that we (or I) cannot disconnect from technology unless we have no choice. Our greatest timesaver has truly become our biggest stressor. How can we connect with others when we are distracted all the time?

  4. says

    It’s so interesting (and sad) that so many of us would rather type out a few words than call a friend. The last time I was in the stunningly beautiful Garden of the Gods park in my hometown, everyone I saw had their head down, staring at their phone, oblivious to the beauty they had supposedly come to enjoy. On the other hand, it’s great to be unleashed from the house when you’re expecting an important call.

    But Marc brings up an incredibly challenging aspect of the electronics field: advances are constantly pursued and generally require us to replace the hardware. As long as the hardware and the form factor keep improving, it will be tough for us to stick with a product for a long time. Thank goodness automobiles and vacuum cleaners can perform their basic functions for a long time. Can we not have that kind of long-term satisfaction with a phone that allows us to have a conversation?

  5. Sibley says

    Marc, I largely agree with you, and do really appreciate your moderate but ant-consumption leanings that I hope continue to spread. But I also think there is a counterpoint worth mentioning that is perhaps a bit above the level of silver lining.

    In the case of mobile phones, the new purchases are, thankfully, driven largely by increased functionality, not a lack of durability or artificially changing fashion/style. That means that it is this market opportunity and cutthroat competition that is driving innovation, which in turn can drive productivity increases, new jobs, etc. This strikes me as not nearly as bad a consumption problem as with many other objects that are simply disposable for convenience, price, or style.

    So I would separate the market-driven innovation from the safety problems and what we judge to be culturally negative behaviors. We should continue to push via enforcement and cultural change against use while driving, and we should all push ourselves and each other to increase positive social interaction. But that’s entirely independent of whether we buy a phone every year or every 4 years – once the phones can call, text, and show us the news, we’re in the thick of the use-phone vs. interact with physical surroundings tradeoffs.

    Along with the _opportunity_ for those “bad” behaviors have come many work-efficiency increases. So I say let’s keep the electronic innovation market moving rapidly and, if necessary, legislate the recycling of old mobile phones to lessen environmental impact.

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