iCost

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Last year my teaching position was at a brand new public secondary college, which amongst its list of in-vogue boasts, became one of the first all iPad schools in Australia.

When I first met the principal in September 2010, he was toying with the idea of becoming an exclusively Apple school and rolling out the iPad. Thanks to my mac-head husband, he was impressed by the fact that I already owned one. An iPad1.

Needless to say, my little accessory helped me get the job, and, while everyone else waited for their devices to arrive, I was the hippest cat in school. Sadly, my fifteen minutes of cutting-edge-tech-geek-fame were over, just four short weeks after the school year began. iPad2 was launched. Overnight, my zippy little machine became a relic.

Two weeks ago, just another short year later, The New iPad hit stores.

Typically, there was a buzz around it all. Some Vietnamese bloggers managed to unwrap it and go viral with the footage, before Apple officially did. The clip had an uncanny resemblance of some of the golden ticket scenes from Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. In the same fashion, people were camped out, lining up around the block and smooshed against the glass of stores to get their latest Wonka tablet on Friday March 9.

“It’s amazing!”

“So beautifully packaged!”

“Such a fine piece of technology.”

“So intuitive.”

“And economical”

“Look how streamline it is!”

“The potential is incredible!”

Yes. Sure. I absolutely agree. But, there are some things about all of this iMania that really bother me.

Let’s start with the fact that, thanks to Apple, technology years have become like dog years. Similar rules apply. Like a dog, my 2-year-old machine is the equivalent of 24-years-old in human years. Oh and the bigger the dog or device, the quicker it ages. Continuing with the comparison, this means iPad1 would be ready to retire at 10 years of age. Hmm, I’ll be lucky to get another 2 years out of it.

So, thanks to Apple, technology years have become much, much shorter than dog years.

As an educator, it seems wonderful that students (in developed countries or privileged schools) are able to gain access to a one-to-one device for an affordable price. The potential is enormous. Just days ago, I was back sub’ teaching at my old school and I marvelled at how students could read, calculate, research, create, organise and play, all on something lighter than a textbook.  Wonderment aside, watching us encouraged to upgrade our devices sooner than we change a long-life light bulb, makes me very, very uneasy.

The question begs to be asked, what is the real cost of that illustrious little ‘i’ and all of its electronic friends?

I’ve done a little scratching around to find out…

The Human Cost

In May of last year, Lai Xiaodong and two of his colleagues paid for our beloved ‘i’ with his life in an explosion at an Apple factory in China. A New York Times article details this event along with a number of other perilously strenuous working conditions that violate human rights. These include pressure to work excessive overtime, exposure to hazardous toxins, cramped living conditions, under-aged labor, low wages and a blatant disregard for employee health. The aforementioned factory blast is not an isolated event, neither is the event of injury and death. Unfortunately there have been more than just accidental deaths occurring, this Sydney Morning Herald article lists concerns of the alarming amount of worker suicides, which have occurred as a result of the demands upon them.

As Wagstaff’s Time report points out, there is a deep irony in all of us sitting around smugly sipping fair trade coffee and tapping away on our iProducts. Not that these occurrences are isolated to Apple products, they are just insisting on being the stars of the show.

I sincerely hope that fighting for fair trade electronics can become as sexy as the crusade for fair trade chocolate and coffee beans has.

Speaking of sexy, do you remember that Lionardo DiCaprio movie, Blood Diamond? Remember it showed the way the innocent little rock that every girl in the West wants has caused enormous conflict and helped finance war in parts of Africa? Well, I know that ignorance is bliss, but similar atrocities are being financed by our love of electronic devices.

All the bells and whistles of our e-bits have not materialized from plastic and glass factories. They are created with minerals from the earth. Tin for the solder boards, tantalum for battery charging, tungsten for vibrating phones and even gold for conductivity and soldering.

KY3 highlights that the Eastern Congo is in a right mess because of the conflict caused by the demand for the minerals that go into all of our electronic devices.

The Environmental Costs

Where did all the dinosaurs go? Into the ground and that is exactly where our toxic laden dinosaur devices are going – well either that, or, like me you have a drawer full of them that you’re not really sure what to do with. The point is, they do not just vaporise. And they most certainly are not biodegradable. Levels of electronic waste are increasing at six times the rate of other domestic and industrial waste

Apparently just one Apple factory cranks out 1000 iPads a day. One Thousand. Per day.

Now, Apple runs a lot of factories. They pump out a lot of different products and then create a lot of new products to pump out and replace the one you just bought. Does your iPad or iPhone come with instructions of what to do with it when you upgrade in a year? Or are you supposed to know that intuitively, too? And what about all of that beautiful packaging? Is it, or can it be recycled?

For a cutting edge multi-billion dollar company operating in a world with serious environmental threats, these kinds of gaps are utterly irresponsible.

The Value Cost

Another concern around the rate at which new, widely accessible technology devices become available is what it does to our ability to truly value what we have. This is not a new issue. It has become progressively more ingrained in the fabric of society, since the 1950s, when the powers that be decided we needed to more consume stuff to make post-war society productive and positive. (See this fantastic expose on The Story of Stuff).

The speed at which new technology products have fed the marketing machine has accelerated this consumerism. New technology has also, by design made marketing more sophisticated, pervasive and allowed us to spend on impulse at the click of a button. It is fueling a frenzy of iWant, iGet. And we can get it, because, the price tag is low.

It is low, because someone else is paying.

What is unsettling is that, on the surface, all of our iTechnology nestles in so comfortably with some of our current highest ideals.

The iPad school I work at synonymously promoted it’s commitment to sustainability, social justice and helping create global citizens, along with it’s commitment to cutting edge technology. These notions are entirely relevant and appealing for parents trying to prepare children for life in the 21st century, but as we have seen, there are issues around the iProducts that mean the hidden costs of this technology is incongruent with these other high ideals.

Yet, there is something about Apple products that are still so utterly desirable. I have been, for the most part, completely sucked in. Judging by every second person that walks past fingering their iPhone, I am not alone. This is because some switched-on people somewhere over at Apple sat down and very cleverly packaged us an identity.

When we see an Apple product, we see relevance, intelligence, innovation, sophisticated simplicity, ease, beauty, creativity and uniqueness. What’s not to want about that? And it is probably more reliable than a relationship to boot; if there’s something wrong with it, you can just upgrade to the next glitch free generation.

How can we possibly value what we have, when it’s true cost is not reflected in its beautiful packaging or the dollar price we pay or the ease with which it is replaced?

In creating product platforms that promote social connectivity, responsibility for our ethical connectivity from the start to the finish of the supply chain needs to be taken seriously.  For the Apple identity to be authentic, we need more than an iPhone app listing Fair Trade t-shirt, cocoa and caffeine items. We need Apple to get their six figure earning sex-me-up think tank to bring a fair trade, sustainability action plan to the consumer table and activate it throughout the production cycle. Those of us that love their brand would be right on board. Otherwise Apple are merely marketing high-tech whitewashed tombs.

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