The corporate-planned death of electronics

    17 May 2021

    In 2019, Ukrainian documentary film festival ‘Docudays’ featured several films united by a single concept. If you look at those works, you will be exposed to images of countries of the ‘Second’ and ‘Third’ worlds, our global borderland, which we hardly could have envisioned ourselves.
    We are talking about the following films: ‘Death by design’, covering  the production of electronics; its logical continuation – the garbage story in the film ‘Sakawa’; then we jump into virtual reality: first from Chinese point of view in the ‘People’s Republic of Desire’ followed by a global perspective in the ‘Cleaners’.

    ‘Death by design’ (2016) by director Sue Williams shows the dark side of the booming progress that swept the world in the 80s and 90s and changed our social relations. The notorious ‘information’ and ‘post-industrial’ society pays for the availability of information by total destruction of the environment and violation of workers’ rights.

    From the Gulf to the islands of the Pacific Ocean, ‘gadgetisation’ continues. The mobile and smartphone market in the First World is saturated; in 2015, according to various estimates, up to 98% of all US citizens between the ages of 18 and 29 had a mobile phone. A staggering 86% owned a smartphone. By 2020, four billion people in the world had a personal computer and five billion owned a mobile phone.

    The film gradually shows that the production of gadgets and PCs is far from harmless, computer factories destroy the environment in two distinct ways – at the production stage and after the end of the product’s ‘life’. Sue Williams tells the story of the false reputation of ‘clean industry’, so heavily promoted by the world’s electronics and semiconductor corporations.

    Market logic prompts the industry to violate human rights: to keep silent about cancer and other diseases in towns near California’s Silicon Valley, to exploit workers in secret factories in China.

    The stories of pollution and secrecy described in part of the film are a direct reference to the sensational history of the Love Canal area in New York State in the 70s, whose residents rebelled against the chemical industry, which kept the harm from their production process secret. Another film on this topic, ‘Furious Green Fire’, deserves its own separate review.

    In ‘Death by design’, the tragic stories are similar. Framed in interviews, they illustrate the level of secrecy surrounding the electronics industry. A 19-year-old girl who worked with chemical mixtures (lead oxide, a highly toxic heavy metal) at a plant in Silicon Valley gave birth to a child with developmental disabilities that he continues suffering from to this day, 37 years later. The employers at the time deliberately did not inform her about the dangers of the production process.

    That company exposing its workers and their families to harmful chemicals was hardly an outlier. Hundreds of other US computer workers, as well as their descendants, were poisoned by toxic chemicals in their workplaces. Human rights defenders fought for compensation. Dozens of IBM employees have been stricken by various types of cancer over the years at the company’s factories throughout the United States. Investigating these claims, lawyers discovered that IBM had a ‘corporate mortality file’ documenting the causes of thousands of company employees’ deaths over a 30-year period. Volunteer lawyers won the right to publish the data and identified an extraordinary number of deaths from brain, blood and breast cancer among production workers. Their work was associated with direct exposure to toxic substances used in the manufacturing of components for IBM products.

    This problem extends far beyond the United States. Much of the US electronics industry has moved its manufacturing facilities to countries such as China, India, Malaysia, and Mexico. There, workers are often kept in the dark about the chemicals they are dealing with, forcing them to work in a poorly secured environment. There are both social and environmental inequalities. The wages of workers who make iPhones are 1% of the cost of the gadget. In addition, many electronics factories in China are dumping toxic chemicals into lakes and rivers. In China, one electronics supplier produces over 100,000 tons of hazardous waste per year.

    The design of gadgets deliberately includes their rapid obsolescence, due to which you throw your smartphone in a landfill after the planned 18 months of use. The film includes comments from specialists who state that the very design of mobiles makes them disposable.

    The electronics industry is more secretive than any other in the United States. Corporations’ actions tell the consumer: ‘We are selling you a device, but in fact you do not own it.’ After a year and a half, the user will be forced to throw the device into a landfill (from where it will be delivered to the ‘Third World’) and buy another one, even they don’t deliberately chase after novelties.

    In addition, authors illustrate how literally one ton of water and a lot of other resources are used for the production of just one computer board. Meanwhile, ‘success stories’ of Apple, Intel and Microsoft serve as a background advertising.

    It is noteworthy that the film ‘Death by Design’ is an activist project: on its website you can sign a petition for more ‘green’ electronics, as well as apply for its screening anywhere. The characters of the film seek to prosecute manufacturers and suppliers of electronics, to expose the public to the composition of chemicals and processes behind the production and to prevent harmful effects by eliminating hazardous materials.

    The film shows the work of two NGOs dealing with the problems of the electronics industry –The International Campaign for Responsible Technology and Good Electronics. The filmmaker declares: ‘Monitoring the electronics industry is critical to creating safe and sustainable jobs for industry workers and electronics consumers around the world.’

    You can read ‘Challenges for the Electronics Industry’ here and sign the petition here.

    Even after their ‘planned death’, gadgets still haunt the environment: 90% of e-waste is illegally resold or dumped in landfills every year. “Death by design” quotes a Third World activist: ‘We throw our gadgets away. Where is that ‘away’? Here’.
    What happens to computers that are no longer needed by “white people” is clearly and innovatively shown in the movie ‘Sakawa’ by Ben Asamoah, filmed in Ghana. We will reveal the twists and turns of its plot in the next article.

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