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The human costs of technology

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CAR violence

“A Christian man chases a suspected Seleka officer in civilian clothes with a knife near the airport in Bangui, Central African Republic, on Monday. Both Christian and Muslim mobs went on lynching sprees as French Forces deployed in the capital. The Seleka man was taken into custody by French forces who fired warning shots to disperse the crowds.” Photo by Jerome Delay/AP, drawn from this story.

The BBC reports that rare metals used in the production of electronic devices are becoming increasingly scarce, which could impede the development of new technologies (see here). Of greater concern, however, is that these materials are often extracted from politically unstable regions.1 The depletion of these resources, driven by our insatiable demand for electronics, will likely exasperate those regional instabilities.

Are consumers responsible for what happens in other parts of the world?

One scarcely considers the human costs of technology. For the most part, we are unaware — perhaps this is our greatest sin. Once, I was a rabid consumer of electronic devices, “upgrading” annually and regarding year-old devices as antiques. (In the late 1990s, I purchased the Palm V, and then, weeks later, the Vx — all to acquire an additional 2 megabytes of storage!) Today, I am inclined to hold onto a device: first, for monetary considerations (that iPhone is expensive); second, for moral reasons — I do not want to be part of the problem.

There was a time when consumers purchased items for durability, such as manual typewriters, expecting them to last for decades. My father purchased a Royal Futura 400 in the 1960s, keeping it until sometime in the mid 1990s. Today, we buy to upgrade. I can’t count the number of computers/devices I’ve owned since the mid-1990s. How thoroughly have we been persuaded, and what the consequences!

I note that France is sending peacekeeping forces into Central Africa Republic. The motivation, at first glance, is humanitarian, but upon closer review, perhaps not entirely. France and the western world needs the valuable materials found in that region. Absent these materials, would anyone be concerned about genocide in CAR? Or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)? Or Uganda? Etc.?

Part of the appeal of the “typewriter insurgency” is the consideration of the human costs of technology, both upon the individual and society. Rather than dispensing with the old, the insurgency retains, even resurrects, seemingly outmoded machines as a reminder that modernization, while not intrinsically evil, is consequential. Granted, typewriters are not especially useful instruments in the digital age, but the notion that because something is old, it should be replaced, is appalling. The insurgency stands as a reminder that modernization has costs.

© 2013, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

  1. Cf, “Two Children May Have Died for You to Have Your Mobile Phone”, Inter Press Service, Sept. 12, 2012. []
{ 5 comments… add one }
  • Ton S. (I dream lo-tech) December 11, 2013, 5:56 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with your insights, human beings, more than we realize, are sacrificed at the altar of breakneck-speed technology obsolescence.

    I have a white MacBook that has now been running okay for more than eight years (along with my equally old flip cellphone) but I know it will die out soon. I have resisted buying an iPad, but who knows for how long.

    Thanks for emphasizing the insurgency’s role as custodian of machines that represent longevity, and a more human-centered technology.

  • Richard P December 11, 2013, 9:24 pm

    Very well stated, thank you.

    Let’s also remember the human costs at the other end of the digital product life cycle: “In far-flung, mostly impoverished places … children pile e-waste into giant mountains and burn it so they can extract the metals—copper wires, gold and silver threads—inside, which they sell to recycling merchants for only a few dollars. In India, young boys smash computer batteries with mallets to recover cadmium, toxic flecks of which cover their hands and feet as they work. Women spend their days bent over baths of hot lead, ‘cooking’ circuit boards so they can remove slivers of gold inside.” — Source

  • T. Munk December 11, 2013, 10:48 pm

    Insightful. Secondhand saves lives as well as money, I guess. I still haven’t figured out why “pads” are so popular. I doubt they exist for any other reason than to distract people and extract more wealth for the 1%.

  • JoeV December 11, 2013, 11:03 pm

    Your essay, as a political statement, is not only timely but represents a moral beach head from which we can begin to counter the criticism that repurposing or restoring old tech to good use is nothing more than a hipster-driven aesthetic motivated by Ludditism.

    With dwindling resources, increasing population and unfavorable climactic changes on the horizon we must begin to extend the lifetime of consumer manufactured goods, in order to begin to minimize our footprint on the planet. It’s a small step, but typewriters are an important symbolic first start.

  • Steve K December 11, 2013, 11:37 pm

    Wouldn’t be nice if the Apples and the Microsofts of this world pledged to support their older devices – “Have one of our older devices and don’t want to part with it? No worries, we’ll upgrade the firmware for you, no problem at all, sir.”

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