Technology as a whole has always been about enhancing the human experience, elevating our capabilities to levels that are dizzying to generations past. We’ve achieved the most amazing feats of engineering and perhaps the most indicative metric of success is our apathy for them. We’ve walked on the moon and cured diseases that previously threatened to wipe out the whole of humanity. We split the fundamental building blocks of our universe every day, and mould star-dust which has been battered and forged into elements of all manner into MRI scanners and novelty keyrings alike.
We’ve been layering abstractions upon abstractions for millennia in order to maximise upon the learnings of our forebears. You don’t need to understand the fundamentals of the combustion engine in order to drive, nor should you. This really started to ramp up with the agricultural revolution and has gaining velocity ever since. Now it’s impractical to understand every layer in its entirety so we tend to specialise in a small subset of abstractions.
When you buy a new phone you don’t need to know about, let alone care about the precise origin of the device. It doesn’t matter to you right now that the battery’s components were forged millions of years ago in the molten core of the Earth before rising up to the crust to be later uncovered by our ancestors.
But the cost of each item shouldn’t be measured in only an environmental context. We should include the human element of each interaction with the world we partake in.
And yet, we’re outraged by the continual news beat of poorly-treated warehouse staff – working in conditions that echo the horrors of the slave trade in a pre-human-rights era. But why are we shocked? The strive to ever-enhance the end-user experience and extract more wealth from consumers, therefore scaling businesses exorbitantly has led to a need to divorce our customers from the true cost of production.
We’ve obscured the human effort that is necessary to fulfil the promise of modern convenience and keep the cost down.
In our drive for convenience and desire for lower costs, we’ve hidden the impact of our purchases behind the simplest of indicators – cold, hard, cash. No matter that thousands of warehouse workers collapse every year at the biggest retailors. Who cares about the suicides at electronics factories in some far-flung destination across the globe? We trade lower costs for lower standards of production in a don’t ask, don’t tell approach to manufacture.
We’ve been on a quest for ever-smaller and more light-weight devices for the best part of three decades now, and we’re at the point of disregarding ingenuity in manufacturing, allowing cowboy techniques of just gluing components together to fill the void.
The most cutting edge phones are not designed to be repaired. The most cutting edge companies wouldn’t allow it anyway. Take the Airpods for instance. The tiny lithium batteries within each pod will fail after 18 months, no longer able to hold a charge. Such is their construction that they can’t be recycled – they’re tiny, hugely complex, glue-filled internals will be left to rot in the core of the Earth for a millennia or more (providing they don’t explode and set free the carbon that’s been trapped in their surrounding land-fill for billions of years.)
In more recent times we’ve made whole industries in building brands – abstractions of groups of people working together. No longer do we talk about the human effort required to deliver something, we just talk about the features delivered by a company. A good example of this what Jaron Lanier outlines in his book, You Are Not a Gadget – chess-grandmaster-beating-software. We talk about the incredible skills of computers (usually) without considering the human effort that was required in order to build them.
Computers don’t play chess well because they are ingenious automatons. They do so because their programmers have constructed powerful models of the world that, when combined with the incredible hardware that has the fingerprints of yet more human endeavour, can beat chess champions. Pretending that methods of computing such as Artificial Intelligence and Speech Recognition are emergent factors of computing power is as disingenuous as it is missing the point.
This great shift to obscuring impact is an anti-humanistic and anti-environmentalist assault on the world. If a product team can okay a device that will be totally obsolete, wholly unrecyclable and highly dangerous if disposed of incorrectly what does that say? If they disregard their empathy, relying on faceless manufacture ring brands to abstract the human torment that is necessitated by their supply chain, how do we reconcile that.
Ultimately the market will respond to consumer demand. There’s no point in attempting to impose some additional rules that we wish manufactures would follow, the consumers need to vote with their purchases.
Take the outcry at single-use plastics. As consumers have adapted to demand more contentious applications of plastics, so too should we become more sophisticated, empathetic, and critical consumers of modern goods.
Our planet, our home is still reeling from the greatest advancement in technology in human history – the industrial revolution. The artefacts of this era have nudged the global thermometer up and upset a great many natural processes. We unlocked energy in order to propel us forward, but unleashed carbon at the same time – now the biggest forewarning of what is to come. The generations that follow will doubtless lament the artefacts of our era – complex, unrecyclable consumables that won’t degrade for thousands of years.
How do we improve?
By asking not how much an item costs, but rather, what is your impact on the world?
I’m optimistic that our process to recycle and reclaim the fundamental elements of much of our disposable consumerism will advance. The future will be brighter, but we shouldn’t allow this optimism about tomorrow foster apathy today.