Disposal Technology: Problems At Every Angle

One of the more interesting panels I had an opportunity to see at WisCon this year was one in which disposable technology came up as a topic of discussion, in a larger conversation about technology and assumptions. Moderated by K. Tempest Bradford, the panel and the audience brought up a lot of great comments overall, especially about disposable technology. I’m still mulling over the panel all these months later, which goes to show you how important I thought it was (and how useful I think WisCon attendance can be, because it leaves you with food for thought that you can chew on all year round).

I’ve talked about disposable technology before, and the issues that come up with a tech culture that specifically designs products for rapid obsolescence and the need for replacement. The panel got deeper into some of these issues, including not just the obvious environmental problems with suggesting that people replace technology every few years; the problem with stripping the earth for the necessary metals to make that technology, with the wastes involved in the manufacturing process, and with the pollution on the other end as well. What happens to technology when it’s disposed of, whether thrown away or recycled (often in unsafe conditions) is as much a problem as what happens while it’s made.

There are also, of course, the worker rights issues, which I’ve also discussed before. They’ve become a more prominent public cause in the wake of revelations about Foxconn, and as we discussed at the WisCon panel, Apple isn’t the only sinner when it comes to abusing workers in the production of technology. Every tech company does it; which means that it’s an industry-wide issue that needs to be addressed across the board by all companies, not just Apple. Singling out just one company makes it look like the others are ethical, and may fool consumers into thinking that avoiding Apple products allows them to dodge the problem.

The abuse of workers who make technology is an issue, as is the abuse of workers who break it down. Electronics recycling is a dirty business that comes with exposure to heavy metals and severe pollution in communities where recycling takes place; unsurprisingly, this task is usually outsourced to nations in the global south. Consumers think they are doing the right thing by sending goods for recycling, and are shocked to find that the companies they’re trusting to handle their electronics responsibly are piling them by the side of the road in Chinese villages.

One underlying issue brought up at the panel was the fact that technology is harder and harder for users to update their own equipment. Many companies build basically closed systems, like tablets that you can’t open to upgrade, and phones with minimal user-changeable features. Desktops are still relatively easy to upgrade and keep upgrading to keep them useful as long as possible, only replacing parts when necessary, but many of the things people have come to rely on are not.

And many users are not educated about how they can upgrade their own technology; opening a laptop to upgrade RAM, loading a new operating system, updating a cell phone, and so forth. Their technology becomes increasingly harder to use and less and less compatible with the new technology around it until they think they need to get rid of it and replace it with something new when they actually might be able to upgrade it and keep it instead.

Tech companies, of course, have a clear incentive for making it hard for users to service their own gear. There’s more profit in getting me to replace my entire three year old laptop than in me upgrading it myself. And unfortunately, the people who have this knowledge can be snide about people who do not; as an outsider to the tech community, I often feel marginalised by people who sneer at me for not having their technical knowledge, for not being able to do the things they do, even though they, too, were once as clueless as I was about things like how to update my cellphone with the latest Android OS.

This isn’t the case across the board, of course; there are groups that actually actively hold workshops and open studios, reaching out to people to teach them about tech and show them how to take control of their tech. Some geeks love sharing, and want to see people empowered and making their own decisions. But they sometimes feel like a minority, and that’s an important part of this larger conversation about disposable technology; consumers have been backed into a corner with technology they do not understand and can’t upgrade on their own, and they’re blamed for not knowing this. In some cases, they’re even blamed for the turn towards non-user-serviceability, with the implication that companies are just ‘meeting the demands of the market.’

I’m not sure the market really wants this; I don’t want to have to buy a new cellphone every two years, for example. But this is what the market has been forced to want through lack of consumer education and lack of support from the larger tech community. People concerned about disposable technology, whether they’re concerned from an environmental or labour justice or simple technology sense, need to be uniting on this issue to fight it from all sides, rather than casting the blame and responsibility squarely in one corner. And a big part of that involves working with the very consumers who are constantly indicted in these conversations, as well as acknowledging our own complicity in these systems; here I am writing about disposable tech while surrounded by it, right?