Jony Ive announced his departure from Apple last week, prompting a flurry of commentary on the legendary designer's legacy. Pretty much no one dissented from the idea that Ive revolutionized the look and feel of our world with his signature minimalist aesthetic. We all carry around his legacy in our pockets every day.
But while everyone agrees Ive changed our expectations for and experience of tech, commentators differed sharply on whether that shift will ultimately be seen as good for not only us, but the earth.
Apple's many environmental sins
The case against Ive's legacy from an environmental perspective isn't hard to make. Apple has long come under criticism for how its products affect the planet. Some of the minerals used in its phones are mined in horrific conditions in war zones. Our favorite devices are power hungry, and after not too many years of service end up sitting in landfills for thousands of years. And Ive's design decisions just made the environmental impact of Apple's products worse.
Jason Koebler summed up this view well in a piece for Vice entitled, "History Will Not Be Kind to Jony Ive. He writes:
Under Ive, Apple began gluing down batteries inside laptops and smartphones (rather than screwing them down) to shave off a fraction of a millimeter at the expense of repairability and sustainability.
It redesigned MacBook Pro keyboards with mechanisms that are, again, a fraction of a millimeter thinner, but that are easily defeated by dust and crumbs ... These keyboards are not easily repairable, even by Apple, and many MacBook Pros have to be completely replaced due to a single key breaking...
Ive's Apple has been one in which consumers have been endlessly encouraged to buy new stuff and get rid of the old. The loser is the environment, and the winner is Apple's bottom line.
Anyone who's ever owned an Apple product with a bum keyboard or busted screen can sympathize with Koebler's frustration. But that doesn't mean everyone agrees with the conclusion that Ivy and Apple are therefore environmental sinners overall.
Jony Ive, environmental hero?
Over on Wired MIT professor Andrew McAfee points out that if iPhones and other Apple products really were so terrible for the environment, we should have seen electricity use and plastic production shoot up since they became ubiquitous. But that's not what experts have observed.
"Total electricity use in the US," he writes. "has been essentially flat for almost a decade. For decades prior to the Great Recession, plastics consumption in the US grew more than 50 percent faster than the overall economy did, but since 2009 the situation has reversed, with plastic use growing almost 15 percent slower than the economy as a whole. For most other natural resources, the growth rate of consumption hasn't just slowed down; it's actually gone negative."
If Jony Ive designed Apple products to be hard to repair and quickly disposed of it doesn't seem to be showing up in the relevant statistics concerning waste and consumption.
What's going on? McAfee doesn't argue that Apple products are built in an especially earth-friendly way. Instead, he points out that iPhones have replaced a whole of other waste-producing gadgets.
"The 'gizmo type' items that had vanished into the iPhone," McAfee points out, "included a calculator, camcorder, clock radio, mobile telephone, and tape recorder."
"When thinking about their overall impact on the planet, it's not helpful to think in isolation about producing 2 billion iPhones. Instead, we should think about a counterfactual: What would have been produced over the past 12 years in a smartphone-free world? The answer, clearly, is a lot more: a lot more gear, and a lot more media," he continues.
Your iPhone might require a lot of stuff and energy to make and run, but it requires a lot less than all the other gadgets you used to need to perform the same functions. Just remember how massive camcorders and graphing calculators used to be.
McAfee doesn't totally disagree with Koebler. "We can also demand that gear-makers like Apple design their products to last longer and to be more easily repaired," he writes. Nor are environmentalists wrong to demand more stringent regulation of emissions and other pollution. But he ends on an optimistic note.
But we "don't need to worry that the iPhone and its digital kin are going to gobble up the planet, or even put a big dent in it. In fact, they're doing the opposite," he writes. Jony Ive's environmental legacy might not be so bad after all.