What Can We Do About Gadget Rot?

Hardware’s hidden weakness

Key Takeaways

  • The 3G switch off will stop early Kindle devices from connecting to the internet.
  • Perfectly good gadgets become junk when software or services are switched off.
  • Do we really own our devices anymore?
Piles of e-waste (old computer and electronics) in a landfill with a lake and mountains in the background.

Philip Laurell / Getty Images

Thanks to the ongoing 3G shutdown, Amazon’s early Kindles are about to lose all internet access, despite still being just as good as the day they were made.

In the old days, the discontinuation of a battery size might have made a camera unusable. Today, it’s usually down to software of some sort. Often, we don’t notice. We’ve already convinced ourselves to move onto the newer, "better" model. But this gadget rot is a serious problem that renders perfectly good devices useless.

"E-waste is a serious environmental concern," digital consultant and gadget fan Julian Goldie told Lifewire via email. "Plus, the amount of e-waste is constantly rising because of the rapid progression of new features and upgrades, for which new products are warranted several times in a single year."

Kindle Shutdown

Early Kindles connected to the internet via Amazon’s Whispernet, a free, lifetime 3G connection. Back in 2007, Wi-Fi wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous, so Whispernet was not only convenient, but necessary.

Fast forward to 2021, when telcos are shutting down 2G and 3G networks in favor of 4G and 5G. In December, these old Wi-Fi-free Kindles will lose their Whispernet connections and never connect to the internet again. Newer devices, 3G + Wi-Fi, will have their cellular connections cut. Users will only be able to add new books via USB.

Two older generation Amazon Kindle devices.

Wikipedia

In itself, this seems like no big deal. These old ebook readers are over a decade old, and new ones are cheap and way, way better. But this kind of rot is endemic to modern technology, and it’s environmentally wasteful, forcing us to "upgrade" and toss perfectly good hardware into the trash.

Gadget Rot

Losing 3G networking is a new kind of gadget rot, but there are plenty more. The simplest is when, say, an older iPad no longer runs the latest iPadOS. After a few years, you lose access to your favorite apps as they drop support for older versions of the OS.

Another, far worse, example is DRM, or digital rights management, aka copy-protection tech. When we buy ebooks or MP3s, they are usually (but not always) encumbered with DRM, which stops us from making copies. The problem is that this DRM requires a third-party server to authenticate your purchases.

In 2008, Microsoft switched off the DRM servers for MSN Music. You could keep playing purchased songs on already-authorized computers, but that was it. Then, in 2019, it did the same for its ebook DRM server

Imagine if you bought a paperback book, and the words inside disappeared if the store where you purchased it shut down.

In a way, this goes unseen, because we upgrade our gadgets often, usually to get the latest new features. But this forced obsolescence still exists as a nagging reality. We used to buy a device the same way we’d buy furniture—carefully and with the expectation that it would last for years.

"E-waste is a serious environmental concern."

TVs could last for decades. Film cameras still work just as well today as when they were built, even those from half a century ago. And that’s not just because "things were better-made in the old days." 

The problem is that our devices are all computers, which we cannot open up and understand, and require software that is either left to rot or exists on a server somewhere outside of our control. 

Sustainability

We have arrived at a disposable culture. This is often blamed on us as individuals. We are shallow consumers who only care about the latest thing. But really, we have no choice. How can one shop to avoid gadget rot? Perhaps the continuing rise in the popularity of vinyl records, paper books (sales of hardbacks and paperbacks up 18.7% and 14.5% year-over-year in May, respectively, while e-book sales dropped 23% in the same period), and film cameras holds the key. 

Fans of these more long-lived technologies might not attribute their appeal to their resistance to gadget rot, but their relative permanence might be as big a part of their appeal as their physicality. 

Is there any way to slow down the pace of new products? How could that even happen? Laws will never slow the constant updates, and most people don’t care enough. But you can follow the hipsters and go retro. Paper books and record players are still thriving, so you can start there.

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