Very recently, at a Chinese electronics factory, a hundred and fifty workers got up on a roof and threatened to commit mass suicide if they didn’t receive the agreed-upon severance which the company had reneged on. Thankfully, a local mayor talked them down. Foxconn, which employs over a million workers and makes goods for Apple, Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard has had repeated problems recently with widely reported atrocious working conditions and resulting suicides, as have many similar companies. The Foxconn plant in question made X-Box 360 components and games. This dramatic incident shows how serious the question of working conditions behind our gadgets are, and increasingly evidence is coming out to show that the plight of these workers was far from unique.

Apple, in particular, has been plagued with such news. Their cutting-edge, overpriced, hipster-appeal doesn’t take well to images of 13-year-old girls working 14-hour shifts. The working conditions recently documented on This American Life include pay of $0.70/hr, employees as young as twelve, dormitories and even one man who died after working for 34 hours straight. Henry Blodget recently made up a list, and it makes it clear that the conditions behind a new iPad are little different than those behind Nike shoes, hellish and colossal sweatshop environments (one Foxconn plant employs over 400 000) where few human rights apply.

Beyond the immediate assembly of these goods are the resources they’re made with, especially rare-earth minerals like ‘coltan’, notorious for being illegally mined in African wars. On the other end is the global issue of ‘E-waste’, where boat-loads of first-world scrap electronics (which, given lead solders and batteries are often “toxic waste”) to impoverished third-world communities where they’re melted down in open bonfires for the traces of metals like gold and copper, used in circuit-boards and other components.

I’m not one to downplay the (real) usefulness of digital technologies. And I must admit my new (android) phone is pretty nifty, and no less annoying or expensive than my last. The thing is, it’s not really a phone so much as it is a tiny computer, and as decades of experience in electronics has taught us, making them smaller doesn’t make the process any easier or less resource-intensive. If the quintessential consumer good of 20th century industrial society was the automobile, then the tablet computer is rapidly becoming the best example of the 21st. In so many ways this process is just as colossal, complex and toxic, yet all the precision machining takes place on tiny pieces of silicone. As these gadgets get smaller and more portable, their lifespans drop considerably. The laptop I’m writing this on is now in its sixth year, but pocket-sized cell-phones go, two years takes a lot of luck and care, to say nothing of the additional risks of losing, breaking or having one stolen.

Also, while these devices have a lot of promising uses, this isn’t something that companies like Apple have exactly…fostered. By strictly regulating which programs (“Apps”) can run on their platforms, they’re able to exact enormous licensing and royalty fees from buyers and programmers while restricting our ability to get the full use out of these devices. The obvious example of this would be the ability to use wireless netowrks to place calls over VIOP rather than cell-phone-towers to place calls, which would save us all a lot of money – something Apple immediately took steps to prevent from the first iTouch units which weren’t even phones (and many cellular providers got very rich as a result). Another (even earlier) example would be the fact that “video iPods” were nothing special – the program would run on nearly any (cheaper) version at the time. These restrictions extend the kind of privileges that would be extended to the owner of a private establishment into our own pockets, onto our own desks and throughout all our airwaves. They offer less options at higher prices, with the only real consolation being that they’re fashionable – sounds like a nightclub to me. When the iFridge hits the market, offering only three brands of beer at five dollars a can and no ability to refill it myself, I think I’ll give it a pass.

I look forward to a day when electronics aren’t so disposable and toxic. It’s not impossible to produce circuit boards or microchips locally (etching and lasers are the best options I know of). In time we’ll get over our need for ultra-miniaturized gadgets and refocus our effort on stable, long-lasting devices. Soon, likely (as China has already bought up most of the world’s spare supply of rare-earths), we’ll have to start making do with more common materials, the way we’re now having to redesign machines around a growing global shortage of neodynium magnets (again, China). Some of that work is already beginning with the Arduino and other examples of open-source microchips, and much more is taking root as people learn the skills needed to work with them. While some of these machines may have less raw power than their industrially-built competitors, they more than make up for it by being ‘programmable’ down to the circuit pathways on the boards and chips, a far more powerful and efficient option than installing “apps”. Then and in the meantime, if we care about the world around us and the people in it (even those we’ll never meet), perhaps it’s time to learn to be a little more happy with what we have. Modern phones, tablets and laptops have more power than needed to run a space program and if we really took the time to learn to really use them.

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