Guilty necessity: The hardware challenge

When it comes to reporting on technology innovation, you can’t go wrong bookmarking Gizmodo or throwing some dollars toward a Wired magazine subscription. So when Gizmodo editor Joel Johnson wrote the cover story for Wired in March 2011, I thought I’d better take a look.

1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?” discussed the high suicide rates at the Foxconn plants in China where long work days, huge productivity expectations and a “gated” living environment are pushing some workers literally off the tops of buildings.

While talk of factory working conditions is unfortunately not a new story, the tone that Johnson took was one of guilty necessity. These factories that pump out millions of technology products are part of a machine we can’t stop: “Every consumer good has a cost not borne out by its price but instead falsely bolstered by a vanishing resource economy. We squander millions of years’ worth of stored energy, stored life, from our planet to make not only things that are critical to our survival and comfort but also things that simply satisfy our innate primate desire to possess.” Johnson offers no solution to the problem, but acknowledges his role in it. That’s good, but it’s only half the job.

There are very positive uses for technology in the world – we employ them as shining examples during our annual Net Change Week. I even wrote a post recently about the vast number of mobile technologies now helping countries build democracy and sustain development. I, like Joel Johnson, love it when technology can be used for positive social change.

What stops my enthusiasm in its tracks, however, is that while clever entrepreneurs program their way to community impact, the hardware dilemma remains unchallenged. Regardless of what we do with the iPhones, they are still mass produced by an increasingly desperate workforce.

Coupled with this production dilemma is the questionable component supply chain. Many of us know that the mineral tantalum is used inside most of the mobile phones, laptops and other electronics that we use. The Eastern Congo’s hillsides are rich in tantalum and its extraction is partly blamed on fuelling the ongoing civil war there.

The conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has claimed more than 5.4 million lives since it began in the late 1990s. Now centered in the east of the country, it involves a range of militant groups – local militias, Congolese and Rwandan rebels, and the Congolese army – that use control over the country’s rich mineral deposits as a source of financing (see: Conflict Minerals and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Electronics companies, governments and human rights organizations have been developing methods to prevent the sale of tantalum and other “conflict minerals” as they’re called, which seems a step in the right direction. While opportunities for social and ecological development are squandered by the local militias at the expense of the local people, accessing tantalum from other areas seems like the best stop-gap solution.

However, I still wonder how we can build this hardware and remove the desperation and conflict altogether? If we’re so connected to what the technology can do, we must now challenge ourselves to innovate in its production.

There are so many great technology applications being used around the world to leverage the efforts of peace, democracy and sustainability movements. The opportunity now seems to be in how we can complete the knowledge economy revolution circle and offer a fair trade technology solution to the world.