Opportunity Costs

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 9 May 2008

There are people who would have us believe that our computers could destroy the planet. No, not by taking control of the nuclear arsenals or enslaving humanity, but by sapping our resources and literally polluting us to death. They may be right.

I came across some shocking facts in a bulletin produced by a group called the Electronic Industry Good Neighbor Campaign. Apparently, the production of a single six-inch silicon wafer used for computer chips requires the following resources: 3,200 cubic feet of bulk gases, 22 cubic feet of hazardous gases, 2,275 gallons of de-ionized water, 20 pounds of chemicals, and 285 kilowatt hours of electrical power. The end result also yields the following by-products: 25 pounds of sodium hydroxide, 2,840 gallons of waste water, and seven pounds of miscellaneous hazardous waste.

While a few computer parts manufacturers are succumbing to pressure from local environmentalists to phase out the use of hazardous materials and production of toxic waste near groundwater supplies, most of the industry is content with adding energy saving features to our monitors and bright stickers announcing their existence. In other words, no one’s really doing anything about it.

I’d hate to join the chorus of extreme left-wing reactionary voices calling for an end to computers, but unlike most of their arguments about the terrors of a technological society, this one has some validity and needs to be addressed. If we ignore their protestations then the real environmental negligence associated with computer production will give credence to the rising yet largely unfounded paranoia about the place of computers in modern society.

The whole argument in all its graphic detail was presented to me while I sat on a panel at a computer conference in Austin, Texas. For once in my life, I was cast as the right winger while a Native American woman explained how the “computer revolution” (her words) was really just an effort by chemical companies to maintain their stranglehold over the world economy. By advocating the use of computers by business, communities, schools, and individuals, these companies create demand for hi-technology and the many expensive chemicals required for their production.

Worse, the argument went, the community, communication, and civil activities that we computer lovers believe result from online interaction are no substitute for the real thing. They are limited to rich white people, and actually decrease our ability to conduct meaningful social work. What we don’t see, we don’t think about, and countless poor whose numbers increase every day will be working with toxic chemicals and having their groundwater contaminated while the rich disappear into the ignorant moral safety of cyberspace.

A liberal Los Angeles Times columnist continued this tirade: the computer revolution, he explained, is just the latest version of a class war that has raged for centuries and shows no signs of letting up. Just as “old media” programmed the masses into submission, the new media, under the guise of interactivity, merely addicts people to technology. In his view, all computers are designed to be obsolete. Old PC’s are deemed useless even by grade schools, and stockpile in waste dumps as more are made with the latest bells and whistles. Our fetishism for better technology and faster modem speeds is not based in human need, but in corporate greed.

The problem with these arguments, as far as I’m concerned, is that they don’t take into account that things can and do change. I believe that the advent of interactive technology marks a genuine shift in the ability of real people to gather true information, share it with one another, and make sense of the world around them. This includes information about environmental abuse, poverty, and marketing schemes.

My point of view was discounted as “the conceit of youth,” and the “sanguine words of a techno-utopian.” The class war has raged for centuries, and a few new inventions aimed at appealing to the rich and puffing up the stock market will do little to cure the ills of the still-disastrous industrial age. No computer or user can resist following the relentless flow of history, and we are simply falling into the trap of our oppressors if we think we can.

I aim to prove these critics wrong, and anyone dedicated to integrating technology safely and effectively into modern society should hope to do so, too. If we careen mindlessly towards technological progress with no attention to its effects on the environment or labor, then the renaissance that computers might hold in store for us will be reduced to nightmare these social activists envision.

But if, on the other hand, we stay conscious of what we’re doing with these machines we stand a chance of using them to dismantle the tyranny of injustice rather than simply contributing to it. We owe it to ourselves to examine each new purchase for how it really stands to increase our productivity. We owe it to our planet to become more aware of tremendous strain that computer manufacture puts on our natural resources, both in evaluating our purchases and in pressuring companies to adopt greener production methods.

Slowing down or reversing our drive towards an interactive future will only disable us from breaking the cycle of abuse that these well-meaning activists rightly fear. I insist that these machines are, indeed, different from the ones that came before them; but they’ll only live up to their potential if we prove different than those who came before us, too.