Don’t Gloat Over The Note 7’s Death

The Note 7 launched to the usual fanfare on August 19, 2016: Long lines, incredible sales, a slew of advertising. Nothing out of the ordinary. I’ll admit that — as someone who picked up a Nexus 6P instead of going for a new Samsung flagship phone — I hadn’t really been paying attention until stories began circulating about battery fires. At first it was scattered reports, the usual type of “well that’s strange” which can accompany any new tech launch. That curiosity shifted to outright disconcertion as the systemic nature of the fault was revealed. It wasn’t just one battery exploding here or there (a lingering problem with lithium-ion technology itself), it was thirty-five in two weeks. In an age where everything is on social media, the story went viral. And quickly it became clear that something needed to happen. To Samsung’s credit, they acted quickly. On August 31st, Samsung suspended shipping of the Note 7 to Korean telecarriers pending further quality control tests. Then came the big news on September 2nd — a recall. The first of its type in recent history and certainly one of the biggest for a piece of consumer tech. Samsung botched the voluntary recall, though, sending out replacements that still caught fire. That was the end of the line. Less than sixty days from its worldwide debut, Samsung announced that it would put a halt to manufacturing and recall every last unit.

And for some there was much rejoicing: gleeful memes joked about the phone, Apple fanatics touted the battery failure as proof of their brand’s superiority…but few realize the absolute and unmitigated damage this event will have on even the most remote corners of the globe. There’s no reason to cheer on a massive recall like this. People are going to get hurt — and not just from the phones themselves.

The $3 billion that Samsung will lose over the next two quarters likely means thousands of layoffs worldwide. The discontinuation and recall’s profit losses will also ripple through a world economy that’s still struggling to get back on track. Most affected outside of Korea will be Vietnam. 20% of Vietnam’s exports are related to Samsung battery products. The developing nation will be hobbled from the loss of electronics manufacturing related to the Note 7. This at a time when they’re already struggling from sustained drought conditions. It’s not simply jobs that are at stake, though — the environment itself will suffer for the simple fact that smartphones aren’t recycled. Not really and certainly not in the sense that most people think of when they think ‘recycling’. The vast majority are refurbished and re-sold. A recall of millions of smartphones on this scale is, according to experts, an ecological disaster. Most of the rare-earth materials used in smartphones can’t be recovered by any processes we have in place. Often those same rare-earth metals are acquired by using environmentally hazardous processes. Samsung has already announced that they’ll be shifting their production to the Galaxy 7 and Edge 7 to make up for the loss of the Note 7. This means even more cobalt and indium pulled from the ground. It means even more sulphates, ammonia and hydrochloric acid leaking into water supplies at a time when scientists are signalling alarm over the Great Barrier Reef’s bleaching — a problem that only gets worse as more pollution seeps into our global water supply.

Moving away from strictly environmental concerns, there is a brand concern. Not for Samsung — they’ll do just fine. However, the Note 7 recall could translate into less-than-tech-literate folks believing that the problem was with Android, hobbling adoption of an incredible open-source platform that’s kept Apple’s domination of the phone market in check. That’s good for precisely nobody, not even Apple’s most rabid fans. Competition helped make the iPhone a reality. Remember that it was Steve Jobs’ dissatisfaction with his Palm Pilot that spurred him to bring the iPhone to market…and without competition the iPhones you love so much will be worse because there’s absolutely no incentive to make them better. And they’ll charge higher prices, too, to justify all the minimal “innovation” they’ll do. If you have a tough time believing that, one need only to look at how the price-gouging of the EpiPen was justified.

Damage to Android also means damage to people’s trust in a brand responsible for allowing unprecedented access to mobile devices in third-world countries at a time when Internet access is displacing electrification as the sign of a developed economy. As someone who believes that there is a good form of capitalism (one whose perverse incentives are constrained by laws), I want to see more people have access to things that allow them to compete. I want to see a world of great connections. A connected world is something to strive for because if we are all connected and understand how devastating even a single event like this, we can start to come together and stop events like this. Humanity needs to be less divided. This is a solemn day. There is no good here. For those celebrating, I leave you with this: your tech partisanry is not quaint, or harmless. It causes damage and it comes from an ugly, awful place.