In a piece on Salon last week, writer Andrew Leonard laid out the raw truth: There is no ethical smartphone. The sins of Apple's iPhone factories, where laborers literally and figuratively kill themselves in pursuit of faster gadgets, are well-documented. But the problem, Leonard notes, extends far beyond Apple. "For every smartphone manufacturer," he writes, "the model of globalized production is fundamentally similar."
Just as the problem isn't only Apple's, neither is it relegated to phones. Laptops, televisions, digital cameras, and every consumer electronic in between wreak havoc on people and environments at every point in their lifespan—save, of course, for when you own them. From the mining that yields their minerals to their assembly line production to, ultimately, their disposal, our devices make messes that leave people sick and landscapes pillaged. How do we live up to our moral ideals without having to quit our jobs and live in an off-the-grid, self-sustaining commune? The answer might be simpler than you think.
Perhaps the best bit of social commentary on America's ever-growing obsession with gadgets came from The Onion in 2009: "New Device Desirable, Old Device Undesirable." In a few short paragraphs, the piece masterfully roasts the arbitrary and compulsive nature that guides many people's electronics purchases. "Its higher price indicates to me that it is superior, and that not everyone will be able to afford it, which only makes me want to possess it more," a customer says of the unnamed "new device." "I feel a strong urge to purchase the new device. Owning the new device will please me and improve my daily life." Exactly what makes the updated device better, save for a better battery and smaller size, is never explained, but that's not the point. It's new!
The pursuit of newness is the engine powering most techies' conspicuous consumption. Rappers get excited about bling, while gearheads love cars. For Engadget readers, there is a particular joy to be found in the speed of a brand-new hard drive, or a stable of "killer apps" cluttering an iPhone screen. And it's in this pursuit of newness, I believe, that we can find a temporary cure for what ails us. It's as elementary as third grade: Stop buying stuff all the time.
In a Lifehacker poll from March 2011, nearly a third of respondents said they owned at least five computers, an especially astounding figure if you consider that smartphones didn't count in the poll. Only 8 percent of respondents owned just one computer. To be fair, Lifehacker readers aren't your average American—it's a site dedicated to improving your life through technology, and its fans are probably more internet-savvy and inclined toward gadgets than most. Nevertheless, the typical American consumer isn't wholly different. In 2009, more than a quarter of all American households had three televisions, and nearly 10 percent had five or more. When it came to the more general "rechargeable electronic devices," almost 10 percent had nine or more. The EPA says people in the United States now have a combined total of 3 billion electronic products. And every year, the average person will spend $1,200 on acquiring more, only to throw away the stuff they already have. Americans throw away about 130,000 computers per day, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. We also toss about 100 million cellphones a year.
Our mass and reflexive consumption of consumer electronics has gotten out of control, and we're not the ones paying the price for it. In its damning January article on Apple's awful Foxconn facilities, the New York Times noted that experts find a well-defined link between consumer demand and worker abuses. "This system may not be pretty, [electronics executives] argue, but a radical overhaul would slow innovation," the Times wrote. "Customers want amazing new electronics delivered every year."
Meanwhile, in the Congo, soldiers are slaughtering each other and civilians with funding from conflict minerals, which will eventually find their way into computers, phones, TVs, and video game consoles. In 2010, Steve Jobs put it directly, saying that there was "no way to be sure" that iPhones weren't using conflict minerals. Higher demand for minerals also means higher demand for mine workers, many of whom are slave women, raped and then forced to work for free.
And what happens when we're done with our mountains of gadgets? Many people don't know, but the Chinese do. They're the ones who sift through the tons and tons of electronic waste we send to their country annually. Chinese men, women, and children take that e-waste and, for about $8 per day, scrap it out for the valuable metals in its component parts. In the process, they inhale lead and expose themselves to other poisons like mercury, cadmium, and chromium, all of which are known to cause cancers and birth defects.
Perhaps the only good news about all this death and filth and illness is that it doesn't have to be as bad as it is. Consumers can and should demand better from our electronics manufacturers—when we do so, things change. After being outed as abusive by a host of international journalists and activists, Foxconn immediately raised salaries and hired the Fair Labor Association to interview employees. But if you're not a media outlet or activist, what can you do? You can start by extracting yourself from that Apple store.
In the past eight years, I've purchased two computers (one of which I bought used) and three cell phones. I don't explain my gadget habits to brag, but simply to point out something obvious: You don't need brand-new stuff to have a healthy and happy life in the digital world. I make my living by publishing online, and I maintain a Twitter account, a Tumblr, and a (mostly barren) YouTube channel. I can check my email on my cellphone, and I can accomplish practically anything on my computer an average person would want to do. And I've done it all without champing at the bit for an iPad or spending a grand on a MacBook Air. In the process, I've also contributed significantly less than the average American to things like conflict mineral mines and toxic e-waste shipped to far off lands.
Obviously there are people in the world who need five computers, and there are probably some people who need to purchase a brand new iPhone every time one comes out. But most people don't, and those people shouldn't be standing in line for hours on end outside electronics stores in order to stock up on some other thing that's going to be obsolete in 18 months.
One day, someone is going to figure out how to build a beautiful computer without exploiting human beings in the process. Until then, our job should be to figure out how to survive without a new smartphone every year.