My (ab)use of technology…

One of the first tablets... it looks so old!
One of the first tablets… it looks so old!

I had a come to jeebus moment yesterday. My coworker asked me “When did the first tablet come out?” I was sure that tablets have been available since the mid 90s. What she was really looking for was the first mass produced consumer tablet: a la iPad. Off the top of my head I answered “Probably 2005 or 2006.” A quick jaunt over to Wikipedia proved how wrong I was.

The first iPad came out in 2010. Three years ago. It feels like tablets have been around forever but in just three years they have dominated the computer market. Now people are predicting the death of the traditional personal computer. They may be right.

I'll admit it...
I’ll admit it…

I took my first computer apart in the mid 80s. I built my first box in the early 90s. Since then I’ve joined the competition over storage, processor power, RAM, and graphics. The dust has settled; power, speed and space is now battling over portability.

Speaking of which, I recently signed up for a Netflix account on my smartphone. I’ve been using it to watch reruns of Star Trek TNG. I noticed that the tech in the show now looks modern (maybe a little dated) instead of futuristic. As a teen in the 90s I dreamed of a wondrous future with portable and powerful computers. Who knew I only had to wait about 15 years?


In this regard, I am the 1%. Most of the minerals and materials used in the manufacture of my smartphone were harvested by people in the third world with little access to electricity and sanitation. Developing countries would rather spend money on cell towers than roads or sewer systems. Why? Wireless tech is easier, cheaper, and is attached to multinational corporate dollars. Who cares if a child slave helped build my smartphone.

It’s easy to get lost in the latest and greatest gadgets. I geek out about the speed and power of a new consumer electronic, but I constantly need to remind myself to take a step back and look at the realities of my technology. Only 1/5 of the world has access to email. Less than that actually owns a computer. Even less have reliable internet. I am forced to admit I’m extremely privileged to own and be educated in the use of modern technology.

Come on kids! Work harder... daddy needs a new TV!
Come on kids! Work harder. I need a new TV!

Technology is another item that is increasing the divide between rich and poor. Wealthy schools can afford iPads and programming courses, while low-income schools barely have machines running Windows XP in a 10 station computer lab. The digital divide is one more way my privilege separates me from the margins of society (those who are poor and less educated).

Demand it!
Demand it!

Because of this I feel motivated to use my technology not just for enjoyment, but to help make the world a better place. Demanding my electronics be made Fair Trade; supporting legislation that protects free speech; donating to organizations that use and distribute tech to communities that need it most.

The challenge is to not let myself get sucked into the time sink that gadgets can become. Instead of creating and advocating, I browse Facebook for three hours. Or I spend 10 hours playing Civilization instead of going outside and working in the garden. Or I watch 5 episodes of Star Trek TNG on Netflix instead of taking the dog to the dog park. I am horribly guilty of letting technology take over my life.

The first one is always free...
The first one is always free…

As much as I love the internet and consumer electronics, I recognize their potential for evil (i.e. disconnect from RL relationships, ignoring of family/social responsibilities, etc). I look back and see how much time I’ve wasted playing when I should have been learning/working. I struggle between laziness and motivation with my fingers paralyzed on the keyboard. I want to be more of a user, rather than an abuser, of my privilege and not slip back into the blissful soma of technology.

Some days are better than others…

What choice(s) do I have?

Yes, it sometimes feels like this…

I am an American consumer. I have no little choice in the matter. There are extreme options for living off the grid, but I live in a big city (Seattle).  Therefore, I must do as the Seattlites do. I try to make intelligent, conscientious consumer choices: buying second hand, buying local, buying independent. However, these choices are difficult at best. Many supposedly healthy, organic, responsible brands are owned and operated by large multi-national corporations who have more compassion for the bottom line than for environmental or human health.

It’s like that scene in the Shining… but on everything…

This really frustrates me. Due to my choices (mostly, a car and electronics) I have at least 36 slaves working for me. I fully acknowledge the things I buy are tainted. It’s because I demand cheap goods that will satisfy me immediately. It’s because I don’t grow my own food or make my own clothing. It’s also because tainted goods are the only choices corporations and companies offer me. Or I could remove myself completely from the consumer loop and become a recluse.

Ideas anyone? Bueller… Bueller…?

The thought isn’t so bad, except I really like movies, cheeseburgers, beer, video games, refrigeration, modern medicine, owning a car, and the interwebs. Modern life in the United States can be awesome, amazing, and wonderful!

There has to be a better way.  Few things in life are this black and white. Change has to come from both sides–manufacturer and consumer. I must demand my goods be slave free and ethically sound. I have to accept that these goods will eventually cost more. Corporations must wake up and realize human beings have an inherent dignity and the Earth can’t be raped until there is nothing left. If I can have fair trade coffee and conflict free diamonds, why can’t I have blood free electronics and transparent labeling?

These are your only choices… forever…

Google and some other companies are on the right track. There are alternatives for those of us who can afford them. But I worry about are people who can’t afford (or access) these choices. Millions of people can ONLY shop at WalMart and eat at McDonalds. Economics dictate their food and goods. Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and the little hipster organic shop on the corner don’t exist in their neighborhoods and are too expensive for their budgets. In a country that prides itself on freedom and choice, millions of people have no alternative but depend on goods bound to human slavery and environmental atrocities.

Power to the people!

So what is an American consumer to do?  Start with consumer choices. Nothing will be 100% guilt free, but I have been buying better. Heather and I have scaled back how MUCH we buy in lieu of the QUALITY in what we buy. When we can, we frequent farmers markets. We walk to work. We don’t own a TV. We cook our own food. We buy clothes second hand. We make choices to go without, rather than participate in.

We also gear our investments in portfolios and organizations which work towards just environmental, economic, and employment practices. These investments may not have better returns, but the ethic is more important. Also, I speak up on corporate social media pages and participate in local and national government… I demand policies and laws that take the environment and human rights into account.

Trust this guy.

Gandhi’s words will forever be true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Change is difficult and comes at a sacrifice; it means discomfort, delay of reward, or just saying no. But I believe it’s worth all this and more to achieve as much of a slave free and environmentally sustainable world as we can get. It is happiness and health for the long run.