by Vianney Vaute / CCO, Back Market
Instead of being faced with the doting and permissive public of earlier times, technology companies are now being asked hard questions about their ethics and their responsibilities to humanity at large. Slowly but surely, even the giants are being forced to listen and to comply.
The sun is setting on the Wild West days of unbridled (and unregulated) data collection, manipulation and sharing. The tech backlash, spurred on by a number of high profile scandals has led to concrete legislation — from large legislative bodies, like the notorious GDPR bill implemented by the European Union this past May — and from local government, like AB 375, a privacy bill passed in California this past July.
There is also a backlash to another less tangible, but equally pernicious, side of the tech industry. Led by non-profits like Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology, Wired has coined the term ‘ethical tech’ for a movement advocating for the protection of minds from the hypnotic and addictive properties of software and social media platforms. It is a coordinated effort to educate the public and at the same time, to ask tech providers to take a look at their products and to ask whether they are actually helping or exploiting their users.
This is all well and good. It is encouraging to see what people can achieve when they band together, and yet, why is it that the ethos is almost exclusively focused on the side of software, usage, and data?
What About The Hardware?
In spite of the flagrant squandering of limited natural resources, the inhumane working conditions in mines, factories, and backroom “recycling” operations, not to mention the escalating e-waste crisis, we have yet to see the same kind of backlash in terms of hardware. Things have stayed more or less the same, even when there is at least just as much at stake as there is with software (and arguably more).
While rigged elections, mind-control, and identity theft are certainly important issues, ones and zeros seem relatively harmless compared to the direct physical threat to humanity posed by our hardware. Are we missing the forest for the trees with regard to the damage tech companies can wreak if left unchecked?
Like other big tech manufacturers, Apple speaks to environmental and labor issues, but while it’s great that they’re doing something (they just switched to 100% green energy) — we must also ask if what they’re doing is truly enough considering their contribution to the existence of these environmental issues and the size of their influence. As Michael Holder says in Green Biz:
…as the newly crowned leader of the global economy, and one which professes to take its green credentials seriously, Apple arguably has more influence than almost any other company on the direction of the global economy…companies such as Apple can and certainly should be doing a lot more to lead as an example for its incredibly rich and powerful tech sector peers.
Apple manages to crunch out innovations each year, and yet somehow their R&D department hasn’t managed to innovate towards a more robust battery that can stay in good condition for more than 2 years. Maybe it’s unfair to demand that. Maybe that’s simply not possible yet. But there are certainly ways to innovate towards more sustainable hardware. Apple could easily go the direction of Dutch phone maker Fairphone and their more earth-friendly devices (the company is also doing other inspiring things with sustainable business practices). But why should they? In the end, they are accountable to their shareholders. It boils down to business priorities. When it comes to sustainability, the whole industry needs a change, and it needs to be incentivized to make big changes.
People have managed to make Facebook and Twitter evolve and there’s no reason the same kind of pressure can’t be applied to tech hardware companies. We’ve seen consumers pressure companies to create change in other physical product industries — boycotts of brands that use unfair labor practices, or avoiding products that contribute to environmental problems (plastic water bottles and straws come to mind). A study by Edelman shows that more 47% of American consumers now buy based on their personal convictions, and a whopping 66% of millennials are belief-driven buyers. The question is whether pervasive ageism in electronics and an obsession with novelty will trump this trend in the electronics category.
According to a recent UN report, in 2016, almost every person in the US owned a smartphone, and every second person owned a tablet. Americans are consuming devices at an unsustainable rate and that’s even if we are actually aware of the issues that plague the electronics industry. We’ve heard about the inhumane conditions in Foxconn, we’ve heard about the mining and child labor in conflict areas, and we’ve heard about what happens to our e-waste. A lot of us were angry about Apple throttling old iPhones. And yet, we haven’t made much headway in resolving these big and seemingly disparate issues.
To start, the answer might simply be to name an organizing principle under which we can begin to rally a community.
From Fragmented Issues To Singular Cause
I propose Fair Tech, broadly defined as the ethics of technology as applied to our hardware (and software as well, to the extent that it intersects with and affects our hardware).
Fair Tech means accounting for finite natural resources. It means demanding that companies find ways to minimize or eliminate the negative effects that sourcing minerals and manufacturing may have on local populations and habitats. It means educating people about the circular economy and creating means to keep electronic products in circulation longer. It demands that we be more thorough about recycling and that we start to design products with the impact of their disposal already in mind. Beyond that, Fair Tech means advocating against planned obsolescence in all its forms, whether it’s psychological obsolescence or the prevention of repairs.
The goal is Fair Tech. It’s time to start a movement.