Technology Is Never Neutral

Earlier this month, Intel entered a settlement with the United States Federal Trade Commission to resolve charges that the company unfairly used its market clout to hurt competitors.

You could sum up the agreement by saying Intel agreed not to use its weight to squash the competition. The chip giant has a long history of bullying its rivals and forcing itself on unwilling customers. Back in 2005, Japan’s Fair Trade Commission issued a warning against it over allegations that the chipmaker tried to force Japanese companies to stop using chips from its competitors. Last year, the EC fined Intel more than US$1.3 billion for abusing its dominance of the x486 CPU market. Intel’s appealing that fine.

How is it Intel has been able to get away with practices like this for so long? To be fair, it isn’t alone; almost every major technology company is involved in some dealings whose legitimacy might be called into question. If a company has enough clout, its lobbyists may bend the ears of lawmakers to its advantage up to a point.

Blood of the Lambs

Meanwhile, Apple, HP, Dell and other major vendors who contract manufacturing out to Foxconn have the blood of Foxconn employees on their hands. At least 10 Foxconn employees have committed suicide recently, and their colleagues cite the incredibly harsh working conditions as a factor.

The IT vendors’ responses were along the lines of, “Well, we never saw anything during our regular inspections of the factories.”

Apparently the management of the factories would bring in clean new workers and empty the barracks-like dorms where the regular workers slept when an inspection was due. It’s difficult to believe the inspectors didn’t notice anything — any time lots of people are crowded into dormitories, the quarters reek to the heavens. All the inspectors had to do was follow their noses.

Perhaps the real reason, which tends to remain unstated, is that the vendors could never get their products or parts at such low prices if the workers were paid a decent wage. Surely someone on the vendors’ staff was business-savvy enough to wonder why and how Foxconn could bid so low on its contracts, but that would have been politically incorrect.

The realities of business intrude, though: In an era of cheap, disposable electronic consumer goods, where price is critical, it wouldn’t make sense for vendors to inquire too closely into just how their subcontractors can afford to bid so low.

Taking Out the Trash

Ever wonder what happens to your old cellphones or computers? And why cellphone manufacturers and carriers offer you such good terms to upgrade or swap out your current device for a newer model?

For the answer, we have to look at the business model cellphone manufacturers follow, as an example.

Manufacturers of cellphones and other low-cost electronic goods are well aware that outmoded or old products that users get rid of are dumped in developing nations as well as in rural parts of the United States where there is little supervision.

These products contain toxic substances that contaminate the soil and underground water of the dump sites, and if they’re burned to melt down the precious metals in them, they fill the air with toxic smoke. CRT screens, for example, contain enough lead to be especially harmful to both humans and the environment if handled improperly.

Still, the business model calls for the replacement of “old” and “outdated” technology at subsidized prices.

Back in 2008, the Government Accountability Office found the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency observed what amounted to a hands-off policy on the dumping of used electronics products in developing countries under the guise of exports. Some of the “recyclers” had public images as environmentally responsible companies.

Federal rules allow U.S. companies to export just about any non-CRT electronic product, such as computers, printers and cellphones, even though they can be mismanaged overseas and can cause serious health and environmental problems.

In February, United Nations experts said there is an urgent need to prepare developing countries for the surge in e-wastes that will attend the increasing purchase of consumer electronics as their populations get richer. China remains a major e-waste dumping ground for developed countries, they said.

Perhaps cellphone manufacturers and carriers need to be held more closely to account, and their pushing of the “newest” device on customers should be toned down.

The Other Side of Technological Midnight

If all this seems gloomy, bear in mind that this is the world as it is and we must go with the flow while maintaining open, inquiring minds.

Also remember that only 100 years ago the average lifespan rarely approached 70 years; that poor nutrition, health and sanitation were the order of the day; that few people traveled more than 20 miles from their homes; that there was little entertainment; and that we lived in neo-feudal times.

The openness of society, productivity, level of access to information, good nutrition, good sanitation and decent health care of these times is incredible. We just need to remember they all come at a price.

TechNewsWorld columnist and reporter Richard Adhikari has been writing about high-tech since the mid-1980s, when he was editor of Computerworld Hong Kong. He was editor of Direct Access (now Computerworld Canada) and InfoCanada. He was senior writer at Planet IT and wrote extensively for Information Week, the IW 500, Software Magazine, Client-Server Computing, and Application Development Trends, among other publications. He wonders where high-tech is going but loves it anyhow.

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