Accepted paper:

Modular smartphones. Assessing a recent hype


Stefan Laser (University of Kassel)

Paper short abstract:

This paper critically engages with a recent design concept that wants to tackle the issue of electronic waste: a modular smartphone that may be easily repaired and recycled. Based on ethnographic data an attempt to develop such a phone is assessed, which helps reflect on learning capacities.

Paper long abstract:

Electronic waste is a key part of today's global economy: it is the material flip side of the seemingly immaterial IT industries (Gabrys 2011). It keeps getting more serious every year; the pile of dirty waste is growing. In 2018, 50 million tonnes of e-waste will be discarded worldwide (Baldé et al. 2015: 20). This is why many actors want to embrace circular economy approaches to tackle the issue. In my paper I discuss one example and my ethnographic experiences with it. In 2013, the concept of a modular smartphone 'went viral'; a YouTube clip pitched the idea of a phone with interchangeable blocks ('Phonebloks'), which was considered a valuable idea because it rethought how electronic devices are to be designed so that they may be easily repaired and recycled. In the following years, Google attempted to build such a modular smartphone ('Project Ara') - it seemed to become the next big thing.

Roughly four years later, however, Google's project has failed, and the idea appears to be almost forgotten. In my paper I discuss the history of this modular smartphone to shine light on the diversions the project went through. I introduce my netnographic data (Hine 2015; Marres 2017) with the help of economic sociology to describe how a market was build (Çalışkan/Callon 2010) and passions were mobilized (Latour/Lépinay 2010; Tarde 1903). I will especially focus on the problem that it seems as if almost nobody has learned something from the failure of this particular modular project.

panel A09
Encounters with and for circular economy initiatives