What Does Apple's iPad Tablet Really Mean for Our Society?

Young Asian woman looking at a tablet.

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The Internet is abuzz with talk about the next BIG thing. Really big. Really, really, really big. The announcement of Apple's tablet device which is expected to happen on Wednesday, January 27th. With the amount of hype this event and device is getting - I mean really, it's Apple, coming out with a brand spanking new, second-try-at-something-awesome, super-secret-but-been-talked-about-for-over-a-year device that will send fan boys into a frenzy.

Even Steve Jobs reportedly says it's the most important thing he's done at Apple (rumor mill). But...all the talk got us thinking; what does this say about our society? And what does a device like the Apple tablet say about where we are, and where we're headed, in sustainable design and conscience consumerism? As unfortunate as it feels to say this, Apple's device announcement is actually a big enough deal in America and internationally to warrant an inquiry into where we are in electronics and cradle-to-cradle living as a species.

A woman is reading her tablet at a table at home.

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First, some background on Apple's iPad device

This is projection, obviously. But taking what we've heard about the tablet, and what we can guess, we can say it will likely be an ultra thin touch screen device with a full color display, sized about 7 to 10 inches, that can be used as anything from a magazine or book e-reader to an iPod to a social networking tool for Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter action, that the whole family can use and share. It will likely be capable of being used in the classroom for reading and interacting with textbooks, and may even be able to support video games. And it'll probably cost around $800 to $1000.

Some of the rumors about it include the WSJ stating that Apple "envisions that the tablet can be shared by multiple family members to read news and check email in homes." The publication also states that it will have a built-in camera, and according to Gizmodo, France Telecom/Orange exec Stéphane Richard may or may not have said "yes" to questions about a webcam in the tablet.

Additionally, the WSJ claims that Apple is in discussions with newspaper, magazine, and book publishers like the NYT, Conde Nast and Harper Collins, and has been "exploring electronic-textbook technology." EA is reportedly on the agenda to demo video games for it. As for pricing, while many sources have guessed at everything ranging from $700 to $1,000, Gizmodo states the final word comes from none other than Steve Jobs, "who said 'we don't know how to build a sub-$500 computer that is not a piece of junk.'"

For argument's sake, let's say this is bare minimum what the device will be.

A tablet on a table with glasses and sliced apples.

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The Sustainable Benefits of a Tablet Device:

People working at a table on their tablets.

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Apple's iPad Might Mean Fewer Goods Produced Overall

One of the primary things we see this device doing is being the first honest-to-goodness solution for replacing books, magazines and newspapers. It is a full color, interactive, touch screen media platform that can make reading materials a better digital experience than what we can get on computers or current e-readers. This means there's the potential for significantly downsizing book collections at home, as well as in schools. People can keep their favorite hard copy books, or get their favorite magazines that they have to have print copies of; but for the most part, this is probably a device that is a catch-all solution for reading materials - books, magazines and newspapers alike. The display could still pose an issue for long periods of reading, however, since it won't be e-paper technology that makes reading digitally easier on the eyes.

Because it's a full media device, it also can continue on the path of what iPods and iTouch devices have been doing for eliminating the need for massive CD and DVD collections. People can keep hard copies of just what is most sentimental to them, but the bulk can easily be digitized and used on one device, significantly reducing the amount of materials going into creating libraries and collections of pieces of entertainment.

This digitization of media, especially books, textbooks and magazines, specifically for Apple's tablet device - and it sounds like the company is working hard on getting practically anything written to be accessible on the device - may encourage young people growing up in the age of 140 character tweets and 160 character texts read more information in long form, as well as encourages the availability of e-books to all people anywhere there is internet access and a device that can link to it, both leading to positive effects for society worldwide.

All of this adds up to not only less manufacturing of printed materials, but also less square footage needed in homes, schools, warehouses, libraries, retail stores and so many pieces of infrastructure. With about 48% of US carbon emissions attributed to the building sector, this is nothing to scoff at. If it'll actually happen is up for debate - our sensibilities about the size of our homes and buildings and our craving to fill them up with stuff likely won't change rapidly, and so much infrastructure is already built at a certain size - though it could be divvied up further and used for more purposes. But it's an interesting possibility for future infrastructure. The materials used to create the tablet devices and the e-waste generated by them can't be overlooked when figuring a net impact, but overall, the potential for a society that returns to fewer physical possessions and smaller buildings is there.

A woman plugging in a tablet.

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Could an iPad Help Shut Off Computers?

One of the upshots mentioned about Open Peak's energy monitoring tablet device shown off at CES is that it keeps the computer turned off more often. Rather than having a family laptop or computer turned on all the time, during the evenings when a family member wants to update their Facebook status, or another wants to Twitter something, they simply use the device, which consumes far less power than a computer. An overall reduction in energy use results. This could be the same for an Apple tablet device. Rather than reading the news, checking weather reports, watching videos, streaming music, social networking, and so on with a laptop, it can all be done on the tablet which, we're guessing, will also have a much smaller energy appetite that computers or laptops. It won't replace them, but it can offset how often and for how long they're turned on.

It has been guessed at that this tablet device could not only stand in for e-readers but also make netbooks and ultra-portable notebooks unnecessary. If the tablet device is powerful enough, and the touchscreen a high enough quality to replace an exterior keyboard (which the iPhone touch screen keyboard has shown is possible) then the murmurings could hold true, and that may mean a significant reduction in the number of netbooks and small notebooks produced. It isn't likely to happen soon, if at all, but the potential is there.

The Unsustainable Pitfalls of a Tablet Device:

Tablets plugged into an energy port.

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Apple's iPad Doesn't Consolidate Gadgets
This could reduce the amount of consumer goods created in the form of books, CDs, DVDs, Games and possibly even netbooks or e-readers, but it doesn't seem to hold the potential for consolidating the gadgets that make the biggest impacts - desktop computers, laptop computers, cell phones, televisions, digital cameras... The tablet may be a beefed up iPhone and an e-reader, even possibly take the place of a netbook or notebook for some purposes. But it doesn't replace big ticket items that are energy intensive to produce, use and recycle. In other words, it'll be an addition to a household, not a replacement, and it will only add to the amount of energy used - and emissions generated, and e-waste produced - by the electronics industry.

A woman is shopping for electronics and looking at a tablet.

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Apple Is NOT Building A One-Per-Lifetime Device with the iPad

Apple has arecord of making devices that aren't intended for easy fixability or upgradability. Sure the company has gone a long way to eliminate toxic materials from their products, and they make incredibly high quality devices that can last far longer than similar, cheaper devices. But, once the products reach the end of life, that's pretty much it - a replacement is needed, and that's not green.

In a sustainable society, we need to advance enough to create heirloom devices. It is questionable if this is even possible with electronics because of the rate at which new technologies are developed that simply can't be integrated into older devices. We can't plan for something we haven't dreamed up yet. But there's no reason why there can't be elements of upgradability, easy repair, easy recyclability and other elements of sustainable design integrated into the device. We want - and need - heirloom devices; this isn't it, nor does it guide us towards them.

A man draws on a tablet sitting on a couch.

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The Gray Areas: Will Apple's iPad be a Boon or Bust?

Tablets stacked on top of one another.

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Could the iPad Minimize e-Waste?

An interesting part of the discussion around the tablet device is that it could replace netbooks and many e-readers. These two devices have gone berserk in the last two years, with company after company racing to get some sort of tiny computer or cheap e-reader onto the market. The tablet could beat all them out in quality, but not necessarily in affordability. The rush of new technology that we've seen lately in netbooks and e-readers could be stalled, or it could mean a rush of "iSlate" killers - just as so many mobile phone companies continue to work to build iPhone killers - without a slow down in notebooks and e-readers that really perform different functions than a tablet device. The magazine e-reader market is just getting started with concept designs being unveiled but not yet produced; we can guess that the launch of Apple's tablet device won't stop other innovators and magazine publishers from moving forward on those designs.

How the tablet will impact the netbook and e-reader markets is unknown right now, but either way - if it displaces devices people have already purchased, or if it does nothing to change the production and sales of the electronics - it will still add to the level of e-waste currently being generated by this new area of technology. We're curious about how recyclable this product will be, and how it will impact the design of other tablet devices still on the drawing boards at other electronics manufacturers.

A tablet plugged in and recharging.

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What Might Apple's iPad Mean for Energy Use?

The tablet will undoubtedly use more energy than e-readers, but it will be capable of a whole lot more. It will most likely use a lot less energy than laptops, but won't be used for the same tasks. However, it'll be capable of doing much of what these two other devices will do. So, will it ultimately cut down on energy use in the home, as we suggested earlier that it could, or will it simply add to it because it is yet another device being used, and being used differently from other gadgets that it isn't fully capable of replacing, like iPhones and laptops?

There's little doubt that the tablet device could also be connected in some way to a home's smart meter or act as a home energy monitor with an app and the right hardware placed on the meter. Of course there's no word on this happening...yet. But it's certainly a possibility and the company is already looking in to being a player in the smart grid scene. It doesn't mean that the tablet itself will save energy in a home, but perhaps the use of the tablet could in the big scheme. How long it would take to offset the embodied energy of the device and show a net energy savings for a family (and the planet) is another issue, but it could be a component of smart energy management in homes and buildings.

A tablet held in hands being plugged in.

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The Big Picture: Where Is Apple's iPad Taking Gadget Design?

To end this brief inquiry, here is a favorite quote from John R Ehrenfeld in his book Sustainability By Design: A Subversive Strategy for Transforming Our Consumer Culture:
"The connection of technology (construed broadly as the resources we employ to bring about change in the world) to culture is important in that it can be one of several levers for change. Although technology thus plays a starring role in producing unsustainability, it can be just as important as a means to create sustainability. This apparent paradox can be resolved by considering how culture affects the way in which we design and use technological artifacts an institutions."

What does the excitement over Apple's tablet say about our culture, especially coming right on the heels of the embarrassing failure of COP15 talks? It seems to put a spotlight on the question of whether or not environmentalism and capitalism can co-exist.

Ultimately, the buzz over this tablet device says we're a long, long way off from minimizing our consumption of goods - especially electronics - and that our technology is growing and changing faster than we can consume, appreciate, and more importantly reuse or recycle all of the things we create with our advancements.

Can such rapidly advancing technology and consumerism ever be part of a sustainable future if companies like Apple, who have seemingly limitless clout in the consumer electronics market, are designing gadgets that make everyone go gaga, but that do little to change the direction of not simply greener, but sustainable design?

We'll have to wait until Wednesday to see exactly what Apple has in store for gadget geeks everywhere, and just what impact it has, if any, in the realm of green electronics.