Conservation and the iPad

As most Americans who were not in line themselves have heard by now, Apple released its much anticipated iPad this weekend. The new (and slightly cryptic) device was met with requisite fervor following the iPhone release in 2007, with crowds camping outside Apple stores to be among the first to open the expertly packaged computer/tablet/e-reader/...what exactly is it? In fact, one of the most compelling features of an otherwise elusive iPad is its ability to convince over 300,000 people so far that its possession is absolutely necessary.

The New York Times quoted a devoted fan waiting outside the San Francisco Apple store at 4 a.m. Saturday. "It's beyond technology," the fan said. "It's a culture. It's a community."

From an environmentalist's perspective, the iPad release allows time for reflection on consumption and the American obsession with "stuff." (Hear all about that in Overbrook grantee Annie Leonard's web video The Story of Stuff.) If "stuff" becomes our culture and community, what are the implications for conservation? Will people care about the planet when their well-being is satisfied by portable screens and wireless transmission? Will iPad purchasers make the connection between resource use and the shiny tablet in their $500 box?

An Op-Ed piece yesterday, also in the Times, asks How Green Is My iPad? The piece, written by Daniel Goleman and Gregory Norris, goes through a life-cycle assessment of an e-reader versus a traditional paper book. The assessment is thorough yet unavoidably confusing: while an e-reader requires the toxic extraction of metals that may or may not be responsibly recycled down the line, a traditional paper book comes with its own dirty footprint. The fossil fuels required to ship books hundreds of miles, to drive back and forth from the bookstore year in, year out, to power the nightlight on your bedside table, all must be taken into account to make a valid life-cycle comparison. In the end, Goleman and Norris mercifully just tell us what to do: "All in all," they conclude, "the most ecologically virtuous way to read a book starts by walking to your local library."

In the end, people like gadgets, and it's not the iPad specifically that raises questions about the future of conservation. Rather, it's what the hype surrounding the iPad can tell us about the values of our culture. Check out a video of fan Greg Packer, who has no special allegiance to Apple but prides himself on being first in line for a whole slew of coveted products and events. Or think about first purchasers' descriptions of entering the Apple store, greeted with applause, as though by sitting in line for hours they owned some part of the pride inherent in creation. Is it the actual gadget people are excited about, or the feeling they get from having it?

For a funnier take: David Letterman's Top Ten List