The frustrating (and futile?) search for ethical digital companies to support

My phone is dying.

It’s a Samsung Galaxy S8, which was not quite the best one available from Samsung at the time, because I’m one of those types who balks at paying more for a phone than I would for a laptop, but it was up there. Merely the price of an average laptop.

But of course, that was about three years ago now, which isn’t much in real world terms but is a lengthy stretch with these days of technology advancement. Which objectively isn’t an issue. I have zero problem with having an older model of phone or anything else. The problem, though, is in the ongoing planned obsolescence of phones. The S8 is running what is now three full operating systems behind the most current one, and its last security patch was early 2020. All of which is to say, as of some time ago it has gotten as updated, and as protected, as it’s going to be.

Given hackers are getting increasingly adept at their work and older phones make easier targets, and that apps are updated in order to effectively work with the most current operating systems (to the point where what apps you have and may even rely on using on an older phone may simply stop working), it behooves us end users to try as much as practically possible to keep up with more current models instead of letting our phones get too far out of date. Which of course goes exactly as phone manufacturers want it to.

The ethics of planned obsolescence itself is a huge topic, worthy of a post (nay, a book) in its own right. It’s gross that companies have devised a way to make something en masse that they simply won’t–not can’t, but won’t–upgrade beyond a certain (generally decreasing) future point, thereby squeezing the public to buy more and more of it faster and faster. I appreciate that technology of course advances, so at some point older cell phone technology simply won’t be able to handle newer OS’s and apps. But this isn’t just that, by any means. It’s called planned obsolescence for a reason, after all.

And so one learns to come to grips with the fact that to have a modern, manufacturer-supported phone, you’ll be looking at spending between a few hundred to north of 1000 dollars every 3-4 years or so. That varies pretty wildly depending on specifics, such as if you want the very newest iteration of a brand, or if you’re okay settling for a newer-to-you-but-not-new phone from the huge secondhand market, etc.

My big indecision of late when it comes to phones is what company I want to support with a purchase.

And there’s the rub.

The two main players in the cell phone game, for anyone who doesn’t have a phone or who opts to ignore such info, are Apple iPhones and Google Androids. Any other notable players in the industry, including the one-time heavy hitter BlackBerry, have been steamrolled into oblivion or submission (BlackBerry has for years now given up using its own operating system and instead only produces the hardware to house the Android operating system).

Apple and Google both have large ethical strikes against them. What those are is again a whole separate issue unto itself, but it is worth the time and effort to check out for anyone who cares in the least about the practices of companies they’re paying thousands of dollars to for use of their products. I understand those people wanting to turn a blind eye to it all and just enjoy the shiny, cool version of their preferred brand, but put bluntly, where and how people spend their money matters.

As just a smattering of examples for your consideration, and all of this is verifiable with quick online searches in varying degrees of detail, Apple:
– actively slowed down its older phone models with “updates” in order to make their newer phone models look even faster by comparison*
– blocked rallying efforts of Hong Kong demonstrators who were protesting police brutality
– say they’re all about users’ privacy but fail to explain that what they mean is that user data doesn’t generally leave the Apple ecosystem but is still collected and utilized by Apple; your data isn’t yours, it’s Apple’s, it’s just that they don’t sell that data to other companies for added revenue (er… except when they sometimes do…)

Meanwhile, Google:
– seems in constant litigation over anti-trust issues
– agreed to supply user data to the Chinese government of its residents using Androids in order to be allowed to sell Google products in China
– as a matter of course tracks everything you do in their ecosystem–scans your emails, skims your texts, etc.–in order to sell that info to companies which then target you with tailored advertising, and is always re-tooling their approach to that in order to increase revenue while squeezing out competition in that field (see “anti-trust issues” above)

I mean… the lists for both go on. And on. And on.

The problem I’m facing, yet again as I look for yet another phone, is that with these two being the only practical choices (insofar as being able to take advantage of some of the most advanced tech available while being company supported for even a handful of years), which does one buy a phone from?

I should say at this point that I sincerely don’t judge anyone who buys either brand. Anyone who wants a smartphone will almost assuredly buy an Apple or Google product, after all. And what ethical problems both companies have (which many could easily just be blissfully unaware of) are going to be weighed differently, or even just ignored wholesale, by each individual. Insisting that someone who buys an iPhone must be okay with everything (let alone anything) unethical that Apple has done, or the same with Android users backing Google in all respects, is as incorrectly sweeping a statement as saying everyone in a country supports everything the country’s government does.

What I find frustrating, though, is that, knowing as much as I do about the ethical issues of these companies (and I may well know just the proverbial tip of the iceberg), why does it have to come down to choosing not which company is ethically better than the other, but which is ethically less bad? Paying the better part of a grand (or more) to buy a new phone from either of these companies seems to run directly against wanting to support ethical companies.

Given that where you spend your money matters, why are we left choosing between only two companies routinely in hot water over ethics? How will they ever learn to clean up their acts if even people who oppose their actions still end up forking out for yet another device from them? “Sorry you disagreed with our handling of that Hong Kong protester thing. Anyway, thanks for the thousand dollars. See you in four years.”

I suppose I could just go without a phone entirely. People can do that, y’know. But particularly being on the cusp of having our daughter get herself to school on her own, and with some family friends having big health issues recently, it feels a particularly bad time to go that route. This isn’t FOMO at work, it’s just a matter of practicality on myriad fronts.

So I’m getting a new phone. But where to look to find something (even somewhat more) morally supportable?

For the record, I have looked at alternatives to Apple and Google phones. There are lesser known and advertised Linux-based phones, for instance, that don’t use either the iOS or Android OS systems. They’re their own thing. But they haven’t been around long enough, nor had enough of a real-world sampling, for me to get an idea of their stability and reliability. From what I’ve heard of Linux, I’d be up for trying it out as an OS. Yet in regard to using Linux on a laptop, I’ve head everything from “It’s dead easy to install and operate and you won’t miss Windows or iOS at all” to “Yeah, it can be a bit tricky to operate unless you’re good with rolling up your sleeves and poking around in the coding a bit to make needed changes for what you want.”

I’m all for the former of those, yet given my luck with tech, I’m not up to the latter. I surprised a friend who sent me a LinuxOS installation disc for my laptop (really easy to install and run, he said) when it simply wouldn’t install for me after a few varied attempts. And a) I’m not a coding guy, let alone comfortable with getting into modifying coding to get the thing to operate smoothly, plus b) if I’m paying about the same amount as I would for a new iPhone or Android anyway, with all due respect, it damn well better just work. But given the sometime instability in Linux OS or PureOS phones that I’ve read about, going that route is a dicey proposition.

Make no mistake, I would miss the apps if I got even a stable, wholly usable Linux phone. The crazy volume of apps available for both iPhone and Android certainly aren’t shared by the LinuxOS. But while I’m as happy as the next guy playing a game here and there on my phone (okay, I’m probably more happy and it’s not just here and there, shut up), I’d give that up in a heartbeat to support a far more ethical phone manufacturing company. Hell, I should read more and play on the phone less anyway. So bring it.

Maybe I’ll just leave it up to the flip of a coin. Heads is one unethical company and tails is another. With that approach I wouldn’t have to weigh which ethical infraction from one company was worse than another from the other company in some wholly subjective, unwinnable tug-of-war. I’d just reluctantly accept that it’s going to be one of the two but leave the choice up to the universe.

(Fun fact: Just as I was doing the final edit for this post, I found this link (language warning) in a recent email newsletter. This phone issue isn’t nearly as big a question as Gary Vee is talking about, of course–he’s on about how to live your life–but it showed up on my proverbial doorstep at an interesting time. And I’m reminded I do sometimes get Signs.)


*I found out after I bought my Samsung S8 that, interestingly, Samsung did this same thing after Apple had been caught and charged for doing it. Say what you will about the ethics of Apple doing it in the first place, it’s an odd call for a company to have seen the results of Apple doing that and then opt to do the same thing they did anyway.

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