Some green activists have turned to an AI-generated Tim Cook video to try to convince Apple to do more to save the environment with a modular iPhone — and plan to protest the point at Apple Stores this week.
Green activists from Extinction Rebellion and "culture jamming" activists The Yes Men have teamed up to produce what they call a "psychomagic act: a therapeutic visualization tactic to show the public what true corporate social responsibility could look like."
The website, ActDifferent.net, contains a video with Fake Tim Cook delivering an equally phony product announcement: the iPhone Infinity. The device is envisioned as a modular, upgradeable, and repairable iPhone - "the last iPhone we will ever make, and the last iPhone you will ever buy," said the not-real Tim Cook, voiced either by a very unconvincing, foreign-accented actor. Or perhaps a wretched AI.
The site is the work of more than 50 artists and activists from around the world, according to a press release. It calls for Apple to create "a working group and network to steer the company towards greater accountability to its users, workers, suppliers, and the planet." They invited Tim Cook - the real one, mind - along with Apple's board of directors to join.
Their timing couldn't be worse. Apple bloviated at somewhat excruciating length during the Wonderlust event about its commitment to environmental issues. A six-minute comedy skit plunked into the middle of the event featured Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a dubious Mother Nature incarnate, reviewing Apple's environment efforts.
Tim Cook and company cited Apple's extensive use of recycled materials, its reduction of water use and elimination of greenhouse emissions from its corporate facilities and retail stores, and its efforts to replant forests and grasslands.
The theme was revisited a few times during the Wonderlust presentation as Apple highlighted the recycled materials used in its new devices, its first carbon-neutral products, and its commitment from suppliers to use clean energy. Apple hopes to make all its products carbon-neutral by 2030.
As far as the phone goes, ActDifferent.net envisages a modular "iPhone Infinity" that users can disassemble themselves and rebuild using upgraded components if they wish.
The group seems to be borrowing a page from Fairphone, a ten-year-old Dutch effort to build a modular phone that users can fix and upgrade themselves. But despite the concept, the Fairphone hasn't turned out to be "the last phone you will ever buy." To date, the company has produced five models of Fairphone, each with better CPUs and more capabilities.
Another such effort was the shelved Project Ara - begun by Motorola Mobility in 2012, which was acquired by Google and unceremoniously killed in 2016. Project Ara was an effort nominally aimed at consumers that hoped to break the relatively small hegemony of Android phone manufacturers wide open by introducing a common platform of modular phone parts that could be purchased at a low price, then upgraded by users over time.
Part of the problem with this idea is that it's not nearly as simple as some clever 3D renderings and animation like those depicted on the ActDifferent website would have you believe. Despite relatively few changes on the outside of an iPhone, Apple often completely redesigns the insides from model to model, and even makes in-line changes to specific models over time to improve manufacturing efficiency and correct reliability issues.
From generation to generation, the internal construction of an iPhone can vary wildly; it's not a simple task to say "this is where the battery will go, this is where the CPU will go."
In other words, these internal components are not modular: they're very tightly integrated, and subject to change. Modularity, while a noble goal, intrinsically introduces complexity into design and leads to inefficiency as well.
Even the ActDifferent folks admit their timing is a bit off - they note that Apple recently changed position on a "Right to Repair" bill in California. Apple has historically been opposed to such legislation, but it said in a letter to California legislators that the current proposal, SB 244, helps to maintain user privacy and security, ensures official part use and requires disclosure when non-genuine parts are used, and doesn't compromise consumer safety or repair reliability - all issues it's raised in its past opposition.
In some ways, this effort echoes a similar effort launched by environmental activist group Greenpeace almost two decades ago to draw attention to environmental issues around Apple's manufacturing efforts. Then, as now, activists were targeting the wrong business: Greenpeace chose Apple precisely because the company was vocal -and relatively transparent, compared to almost every other tech firm -about its environmental efforts.
The past two decades have seen the target on Apple's back grow ever larger. Now, as the biggest tech company in the world, it's inevitable that Apple will end up in the crosshairs of others who see the company as an easy target, thanks to its dominance. No matter how off-base their demands may be.
Apple Stores around the world should be on alert this Friday. The ActDifferent group said it will stage a "a series of nonviolent direct actions will be held at Apple stores worldwide."
If it's anything like what happened at the U.S. Open recently, expect some protestors to glue themselves to things or otherwise call attention to their cause in ways that — while non-violent — will probably be annoying and disruptive to everyone else just trying to go about their day.