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The ethics of technology

Tom Bryson introduces the ethical issues involved with technology.

Technology is fast-moving and innovative by nature, and perhaps nowhere is this more pronounced than in the computer industry. In 1970, Gordon Moore predicted that the overall processing power for cutting-edge computers will double every two years. He called this Moore’s Law.

Nearly 50 years of development since has proved him right, as engineers continue to find new and incredible ways of cramming more and more power onto smaller chips.

Inevitably though, exponential growth has proved unsustainable for people and the environment. The ever-increasing complexity of the computers and phones we use demands more and more energy and labour to produce.

Resources must be extracted, processed and refined before being assembled into components and, eventually, the final product. Rising demand for exciting new products at low prices means that new devices are produced and consumed at a staggering rate – as many 6 billion smartphones are estimated to be in circulation by 2020.

This industry of excess is having negative consequences at every stage of a product’s lifecycle. Exploitation and violence currently go hand-in-hand with the extraction of many minerals, labourers are overworked and underpaid in the product assembly, and workers are often poisoned by toxic chemicals if devices are inappropriately disposed of.

Meanwhile, all stages of production also lead to rising carbon emissions and are contributing to the destruction of our environment.

However, as the world awakens to the urgent need to curb our consumption, we have started to see the beginnings of a counter-trend. More consumers are demanding products that last longer and have a less damaging impact on the planet. Companies like Fairphone have emerged to meet this new demand and are showing that an alternative business model can succeed.

Meanwhile, grassroots communities are seeking changes to both people’s attitudes and the law, to allow a more sustainable relationship to grow between society and its technology.

Find out more about the ethics of the technology industry in our shopping guides to PCsmobile phones, laptops and mobile networks.

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