Are You Sitting Comfortably?

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Mark Shayler, eco-innovator, author and founding partner Do Lectures wants you to think about that little piece of ever-present technology that we all can’t seem to do without …

Are you sitting comfortably? Really? Can you not feel you your phone digging into your leg? Or your conscience pricking you? The advent of ever-present, always on window to the web has implications. Let’s start with the social. I’m fed up with those walking and texting bumping into me as I strut along the pavement. Or the cinema lighting up whilst someone ‘signs in’ on foursquare. How many times do you feel that whilst you are in the same room as someone else they aren’t actually present? What’s your time to screen in the morning? Seconds? Minutes? This is bad. It’s not multi-tasking, it’s doing lots of things badly.

But there is an even darker social shadow of our addiction to technology and the virtual world. Like many things, we see this trend beginning in Japan. Something weird is happening to the birthrate in Japan. It’s falling. Rapidly. The population of 126 million is set to fall by 30% by 2060. The view of commentators is that this is due to a number of reasons but one of the main suspects is the preoccupation of Japanese men with virtual partners. A recent BBC4 documentary showed us numerous examples including Yuge and Nurikan. Both value their on-line girlfriends more highly than real-world relationships. Yuge says he would like to meet a real girl but happily dates a 15 year old virtual girlfriend and even takes her on dates to the park and has his photo taken with her. More worryingly Nurikan is married. His wife does not know about his 15 year old virtual girlfriend. This is worrying on so many levels.

Then we have the environmental impact of the devices we use. The level of computing power in a handheld device is astonishing. It’s a tiny computer and jam packed with rare-earths. These have financial value, of course. But their scarcity is maybe more striking. In the UK we recover volume rather than value from electronics. What I mean by this is that our targets are all weight-based and to make the process cheap we make it quick. Hence many rare earths are not segregated but instead often get caught up in the ferrous waste fraction. As the name suggests rare earths aren’t too common. Furthermore they are expensive; and finally they are used as geopolitical pawns. As China has control of the vast majority of the world’s rare earths it effectively owns the means of production. Its drive to control this supply has sparked a new colonialism in Africa with China investing heavily in the continent. One of the Chinese dialects is the second most common language in Liberia where China have invested in return for copper mining rights. Wages in Africa are 10% of the cost of wages in China. No prizes for spotting where manufacturing is headed and who owns it.

But that’s not the end of it. Not by a long chalk. Many rare earths come from Africa. In particular the Democratic Republic of the Congo. If you have to call your country Democratic and a Republic it’s a sure sign that it’s neither. Materials such as coltan are mined in the DRC. Some of these resources are fought over and controlled by militia groups. Children are engaged in war to protect this control. Yes children, real children. The lucky ones get guns. The younger, unlucky ones get whistles only. The supply of materials is unregulated. It leaks out of the DRC into other countries. There are plans to restrict the use of materials from the DRC through regulation but this will be impossible due to the ‘cloudy’ nature of many supply-chains.

So when you come to upgrade your phone, buy a console or get a new TV have a think about the wider implications of what you’re doing. The social, the environmental and the erm, sexual. There’s a darkside, a shadow to all this that we need to at least acknowledge and be aware of. Even if we can’t control it, we need to stop it controlling us.