Part 1: We Aren’t Quite Dead Yet: Harnessing The Law of Unintended Consequences for Sustainable Product Design


"The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go often askew, And leaves us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!"
-James Blount

There can be little if any doubt that technological innovations (television, computers, cellphones, social media, etc.) have unleashed a bounty of negative, mostly unintended, consequences on society. From contributing to markedly more sedentary lifestyles (and all the health disorders associated with them) mountains of toxic tech waste in landfills and a confusing (but nonetheless pronounced) shift towards relativism. Their advent has changed the world forever, and those changes have had far-reaching repercussions, not all of which are bad. Modern products, apps, and services have also saved lives, created jobs, connected humankind, and fueled entirely new economies, i.e., the internet of things. Whether or not the world is better off because of them depends entirely on who you are talking to. At the very least, the ripple effects of modern technology are a decidedly mixed-bag for humanity that appears to be taking a sinister turn—something The Law of Unintended Consequences could have easily predicted.

"It Is Certain": The Law of Unintended Consequences

Like a Magic 8-Ball of ramifications, The Law of Unintended Consequences tells us that every intentional action we take will result in unanticipated consequences in one of three categories: positive, negative, and perverse. For centuries, social scientists and economists have been shaking that proverbial ball to better predict the far-reaching, often unforeseen, effects of policy changes, legislation, and regulation. Using this foresight, they strove to mitigate the negative consequences and outright avoid the perverse. Tech companies and manufacturers, on the other hand, have not. Instead, these industries have consistently traded an "Outlook does not look good" for a more absolving "Better not tell you now" response. Planned obsolescence, for example, is the tragic status quo in the tech device industry. So much so, one might begin to think the only things being truly engineered with many of these products are consumer dependency and premature failure.  

Made to Fail: Profiteering in the Modern Age

A way to force or convince consumers to buy the same product again and again, planned obsolescence looks like products designed to fail, constructed to be unrepairable, or intended to stop integrating when software updates occur. In some cases--all three. Pair this with "walk of shame" style marketing that tells consumers they need to have the newest, latest, and greatest <insert gadget here> or else. Or else what? You're not good enough? Not cool enough? Not wealthy enough? Can something like a cellphone really tell you that much about someone? Needing affirmations (of status or character) from a device may sound absurd but let's be honest--who among us would whip out our old iPhone 3 and put it on the table at brunch? 

Nearly half of Americans replace their cell phones as soon as their plan allows for an upgrade--only around 20% of those phones are traded in or recycled, which means the junk drawer or trash is where the other 80% end up. 

Corporate America's consumer peer pressure paired with end-user apathy and a dash of ignorance has created a throw-away society. And while there is plenty of blame to go around, the lion's share lands squarely on the companies and people who design and engineer these products. One doesn't need to guess at the motivation for either--it is quite simply profit. But at what expense? 

The True Cost of Innovation and What Comes Next

A lot of attention has been given to the impact of single-use plastics, and for a good reason--the fact that 8.5 billion plastic straws go into landfills and oceans each year is startling (and gross). But what about complex technologies like cell phones, laptops, and tablets? Most smart devices require 16 of the 17 rare-earth metals to manufacture. Cellphones alone generate more greenhouse gases than any other consumer electronic device and yet are tossed out at a clip of 151 million per year in just the US. Then, there are the phones sitting in our drawers. At this point, it would be actually cheaper to extract the gold out of these latent phones than out of raw gold ore itself. Yet, manufacturers continue to mine for metal components: contaminating the atmosphere, destroying ecosystems, and generating toxic byproducts which seep into and pollute soil and water. While all of this is disturbing in the here and now, the bigger issues are surely--what is to come and how much longer can this go on?

As the world slips into a fourth industrial revolution, with the promise of advances that are essentially smartphones on steroids, intelligent robots, now is definitely the time for designers and engineers to not only consider the Law of Unintentional Consequences but start actually using it to steer clear of the assured perverse environmental aftershocks. There are, after all, three potential outcomes within the Law of Unintended Consequences, one of which is positive. With this in mind, designers, manufacturers, and creators of pretty much anything, but especially advanced electronics, must forge a new path forward. One that involves developing a mindset of doing more with less, fostering environmental empathy, and embracing the challenge of The Law of Unintended Consequences. While challenging, all of this is easier (and much more personal) when you realize, believe, or even just suspect--everything is interconnected. 

In our next blog of the series, we will explore the concept of interconnectivity related to the Gaia Theory and the systems thinking it inspires. 

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