David Hoppe

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:: Smart phones and sustainability

The stuff our technology is made of

by David Hoppe

Sustainability is a word much in favor these days. Wikipedia defines it as “the capacity to endure. For humans, sustainability is the long-term maintenance of responsibility, which has environmental, economic, and social dimensions, and encompasses the concept of stewardship, the responsible management of resource use.”

Indianapolis has gone so far as to give Sustainability its own Office. SustainIndy is about “using best practices to create lasting environmental, economic and community vitality – enhancing our quality of life now and ensuring that future generations of Indianapolis residents have an equally good quality of life.”

I found these definitions by googling sustainability on my Apple smart phone. And before I did that, I used my phone to find out how many miles it is from Indianapolis to Louisville. My phone helped me get directions to a location in Ft. Wayne where I was supposed to attend a meeting. I also checked my email and read a blog post about a rather forgettable espionage spoof from the 1960’s, called Arabesque.

I am a relative newcomer to the world of smart phones, but I am thoroughly smitten. With each passing day, it gets harder to imagine life without it.

But here’s the thing: Smart phones are unsustainable.

Smart phones are another part of the big lie we keep telling ourselves about the world we live in. That lie opposes what we pay for things with what they really cost. We tell ourselves, for example, that $4 for a gallon gas is outrageous — that it should be cheaper. But if you tallied up all the hidden costs and cut the government subsidies, gas would probably cost almost $6 a gallon before taxes. The same goes for food. If supermarkets charged consumers the true cost for a pint of California strawberries, they wouldn’t be cheaper than locally grown berries at the farmers’ market; they might even cost more.

Last week, Reuters reported that about 2,000 employees of Foxconn, an iPhone assembly plant in Taiyuan China, rioted, closing the plant for at least a day. The cause of the riot, which took place in a workers’ dormitory, wasn’t clear. Online posts indicated it might have been provoked by beatings workers received at the hands of factory guards. Police reported that about 40 people were hospitalized in the ensuing mayhem.

The Foxconn plant in Taiyuan employs 79,000 people. Entry-level jobs there pay $283 a month. Workers use this money to rent a bunk bed in a high-rise dormitory that typically sleeps seven to a room. They buy their food at a Foxconn canteen. In order to make up for these costs, workers try to work as much overtime as their managers will allow.

Foxconn, which employs over 1 million people at plants throughout China, assembles products for Apple, Samsung, Hewlett Packard and other electronics companies. Jobs at Foxconn are highly sought after. But Foxconn has also been the subject of a number of unflattering stories in the past year about harsh working conditions and worker suicides. Nets have been strung up around some dormitories to discourage jumpers.

Work reportedly gets particularly intense when a new product, like the iPhone-5, is about to launch. According to Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Hong Kong-based watchdog group, workers may be on the line for 13 out of 14 days at a time. "It is sad to say that to some extent, workers also yearn for the peak season,” reports SSACM, “because their base pay is insufficient to meet their basic needs, especially for those who have to support their dependents."

According to a CNET report by Jay Greene, as of June, Apple had $117 billion in cash on hand. That’s more than the Gross Domestic Product of Bangladesh. They sold 5 million iPhone-5s during that unit’s launch weekend in September; ten times that many are expected to move by the end of the year.

As I hope I made clear, I think the smart phone is an ingenious thing. It’s been a game-changer in the way it has mobilized computing and almost effortlessly appropriated the functions of other tools, like cameras and video players. In a very short time, smart phones have become as much a part of our everyday identities as, say, the credit card.

But just as credit cards have contributed to a false sense of prosperity by making buying power available when wages and salaries are actually stagnant, smart phones have proliferated by creating an illusion of affordability.

Our society, of course, is practically unimaginable without smart phones and all the other forms of digitized technology from which they’ve sprouted. We depend on these things to such an extent that we hardly think of them as things anymore; they are, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out about media, extensions of ourselves.

But try imagining what the world would be like if the person assembling your smart phone was paid more than $283 a month. If that person made all of $12,000 a year, what do you imagine your smart phone would cost? Would you even be able to buy one?

Which brings me back to that word, sustainability — the capacity to endure. The workers at Foxconn appear to be enduring quite a lot. I suppose that makes us lucky. But sustainable, it ain’t.