Last updated: December 2013
Why I’m Not Getting a Smartphone
Sarah Irving asks ‘Is too much technology bad for the planet – and for us?’
One of the few irritations of an amazing two years on my recent MSc has been the background pressure to get a smartphone. Or an iPad. Or some other piece of over-hyped technology.
I’m not technologically illiterate, and I’m not an anarcho-primitivist. But I don’t buy tech tat, and I don’t get excited about every new Apple product on the market. Interestingly, some of the people who do get excited, then seem to use technology ineffectively. In the end, despite the glitz, IT is just bits of metal and plastic; if you don’t use it properly it’s nothing more than expensive bric-a-brac.
Partly this is a matter of simple practicality. I can’t afford expensive phones and tablets, and I don’t like carrying an expensive object that risks getting broken or nicked. So I don’t. But there are also bigger, more important reasons why I don’t buy (into) that stuff.
One: generally speaking, the more a device does, the more energy it consumes. Better energy efficiency means this isn’t a straight-line increase, but we still get headlines about a smartphone using as much energy as a fridge. I’ve heard a lot of smartphone owners complaining that their devices need recharging daily, whereas my elderly mobile can hold out for several days. And it’s not just a matter of expense. What about peak oil and climate change? Does the ability to play games and check emails in the back row of lectures really warrant the additional energy use?
Two: name me an electronics brand whose products aren’t made in disgusting sweatshops in China and other ‘developing’ countries, where people work long hours for shit pay in dangerous conditions. Where some are driven to suicide. Where some of those workers are children. Is your ability to waste your time on yet another gadget really worth that measure of human pain? Really?
Three: the world is getting very exercised about the war in Syria, which is as it should be. But when did we last hear anything about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo? The death toll in Syria is perhaps 100,000, which is appalling. But something like 6 MILLION have died in Congo in the last decade, and one of the main drivers of conflict is the quest for rare metals needed to produce miniaturised electronics – like smartphones and iPads. That’s another way in which your gadget increases the overall sum of human misery. And if those metals don’t come from Congo, perhaps they come from Malaysia or Brazil, where scientists have warned of the rising dangers of toxic and radioactive waste from processing plants.
Four: what kind of horrible culture do we live in where everyone is expected to be available, online, all the time? The last thing I want is a phone that follows me with email and Twitter and Facebook. When is a person supposed to think, to notice and experience the world and other human beings? It drives me nuts when friends check every text and break off from coffee or lunch to take calls. It’s bad manners, and implies an underlying disrespect for face-to-face communication. And it gets worse as the stream of information available through mobile devices gets faster and fatter.
Five: so much of what happens on mobile devices is consumption, not production or creation. My husband pointed this out when he acquired a tablet. He’s found himself using it only rarely, because he feels that it transforms him into a passive consumer, only able to interact or produce by using a cumbersome onscreen keyboard. The point was reinforced by a twitter exchange with a friend who fancied a mini-iPad. I suggested (jokingly) a pad of paper and a pencil. He was surprised; he wouldn’t be writing anything. True, you can buy keyboards for most tablets, but the fact that they have to be bought separately underlines that they are very much a secondary function. One is meant to use this device to consume, to be passive – the modern version of ‘bread and circuses’, the time-wasting ‘opiates of the masses’ that keep us diverted from things that really matter.
Sarah Irving is an ex-Ethical Consumer co-op member and is now studying for a PhD in Middle Eastern history at Edinburgh University. This is an extract from a blog on sarahirving.co.uk. Twitter: @sarahonline_