The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

Just a few months ago, the new iPhone 5 was officially released. Featuring all of the coolest new gadgets and the ‘thinnest, lightest design,’ it sold out in stores in an impressive three days. The commercial for the new phone is so cool, it practically renders all iPhone 4 users as irrelevant in one 30-second swoop. But as I wrote in a recent post on the textile fire in Pakistan that killed 300 people the same week that models were walking down the runway in beautiful designs for New York Fashion Week, sometimes the most glamorous things are a facade for tragedy.

As this brilliant article revealed, the iPhone 5 has been made in China by exploited workers in FoxConn sweatshops. Many of these “underpaid, underaged, and overworked staff” have gone on strike, only for their complaints to be denied and downplayed by Foxconn. As the author notes, our constant complaints and expectations for more ‘perfect’ technology is what drives this labor machine to move faster, to demand more from their workers than is humanely possible. Saturday Night Live recently aired a clever skit that contrasted the ‘first world’ complaints of American tech experts (the phone is too light, I can barely feel it!) with the retorts of the Chinese sweatshop workers. My favorite line? “Oh, twitter’s too slow, you can’t read about Kardashian’s handbag? My brother has a handbag too. He has hand. Keeps in bag. Until he can afford to re-attach!”

While the article continues to lend fresh insight into the labor advocacy that is surrounding this issue, I want to focus here on a simple question: what drives us to buy, and why we are never satisfied with what we have? Is there a certain satisfaction that people in the West gain by being able to whine about trivial things, knowing that the people who are making these technologies are unable to complain half as much over issues that are far more important?

Left: the first person in line to buy an iPhone 5 in England preens with his loot. Right: the family of a young laborer who killed himself at Foxconn (photo courtesy of “Is it Immoral to Own an iPhone 5?”)

Technology has always connoted progress and development in the West. Because technology isn’t available to everybody, those who do not have access to it are often viewed as ‘backwards,’ as ‘behind,’ as ‘less-developed,’ as ‘Third-World.’ For many, technology is a word that refers to the inaccessible, the things they would like to have but cannot afford. It allows those in the West to establish meanings of progress for the world, and to view poorer countries as less capable.

That is not to say that technology does not have cultural and social benefits. It obviously does. The technologies we use can facilitate social movements, create a greater amount of information, help us realize our goals as a ‘global village,’ and forge a “two-way” connection between disparate groups of people. Who can dismiss the important (though arguably overblown) role of new media networks like Facebook in the Arab revolutions last spring? Or how in Afghanistan, entrepreneurs like Roya Mahboob are using software companies to empower women?

Technology can have real positive social and economic effects, but it seems that in the West, it is more often being reduced to its ‘thing-ness,’ to the idea that this conspicuous consumption of more things that may have no tangible impact on one’s life is a symbol of our wealth and privilege. We spend big money on a cool color, on a slightly lighter phone, on marginally faster internet connection. We are obsessed with this notion of newness, with this idea that buying an iPad Mini will make us seem ahead of the curve in some way, when, let’s face it, it is really a slighter bigger iPhone.

And then of course, there is the technological waste that is left behind by our unconscious consumption. Three million tons a year, to be exact. The technology that is dumped in the backyards of people’s homes in China, India, and Africa, ruining both the environment and their lives. How better to reiterate this notion that those in the ‘Third World’ are behind when for many, their primary means of access to technology is the waste tossed out by those in the West?

Electronic Waste dumped in parts of Africa (photo courtesy of DanWatch and Consumers International)

Is that how we are measuring progress now? Not just by what we have, but by how much we can throw away?

We often think of poorer countries as constantly needing to ‘catch up’ with our modes of consumption for the sake of development. I believe however, that the people in these countries who use technology as a means of transforming communities and even resisting oppressive regimes, are actually more progressive than those in the West who have reduced technological innovations to just ‘stuff.’ Take, as another example, the four African girls who created a urine-powered generator that produces six hours of electricity using a single liter of urine as fuel. Unveiled at the Maker Faire in Nigeria, the girls and their ‘pee-generator’ created buzz at an event that was instituted to highlight innovations that actually solve “immediate challenges and problems in society,” rather than, as Next Web put it, “a bunch of rich people talking about how their apps are going to change the world.”

Three of the four inventors of the urine-powered generator (photo courtesy ofEric Hersman)

This holiday season, perhaps we should look to, and start adopting, the slower and more sustainable modes of consumption of so-called developing countries. Why not give a hand-made gift, or practice more conscious consumption if we do not want to abstain completely from purchasing presents for ourselves and our family. What does it mean to be a conscious consumer? Well, perhaps these two examples of different iPhone buyers will help clarify the difference:

Consumer 1: “So I’m going to buy the iPhone 5 today. It just seemed…cool. I mean there’s nothing wrong with my iPhone 4, but my bromance bro got the new one, and it’s so light I just thought it would be dope to see which one we could toss higher. I’ll just trade it in at Apple for a 10% discount. Whatever. When’s the iPhone 6 coming out?”

Consumer 2: I’ve been holding out buying the iPhone, because I don’t really need it. But then my iPod broke, and my cell phone is several years old, so I wanted to get the new iPhone. I heard about all the strikes in China though, so I didn’t want to get the iPhone 5. I’d feel too guilty. So I traded the iPhone 4 for a ton of my DVDs I don’t watch any more. And then I sold my old iPod and cell phone to a green company called YouRenew, which recycles your old technologies without filling up landfills! I love my new iPhone and I plan on keeping it for a loooong time.

I think we all can guess which one is the conscious consumer, peeps.

I know that being socially responsible about our purchases takes a little more time, a little more thought. But if the holiday season is when we give thanks by spending time with our loved ones and sharing gifts, perhaps we should also take the extra time to consider the people behind these gifts, whether it is the workers who make them, or those in the  ‘Third World’ who have to live with them as unrecognizable litter in their backyards.

Want to learn more about the global trade of electronic waste? Check out this amazing twenty minute documentary that won an Emmy for its investigative reporting:

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground:

Louis CK on why we’re never satisfied with what we have:

Further Reading:

This is the first article of a series that focuses on issues of sustainability and conscious consumerism – stay tuned for more on the subject, including an upcoming interview with eco-fashion founder Marci Zaroff!

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “The iPhone 5 and the Latest Technology: Why We Consume at the Expense of Others

  1. habiba

    I think technology is and will revolutionize Africa. So far we have seen the changes that mobile banking has had on Kenya and its phenomenal. What with young techies coming up with apps that help farmers sell and market their produce. I think its the start of a big thing and still thinking “backward” better open their eyes

    • Hi there!!
      Thank you so much for your comment! I really appreciate it. I don’t doubt that technology can help transform communities in other countries. It obviously has (and I gave several examples in my post). What inspires me is when I see people in places like Africa like the farmers in Kenya you mentioned, who are actually usually technology to change their communities and empower themselves and others. To me, they are using technology in the way that it was intended, vs. the way we look at tech, which is just ‘stuff.’ For example, check out this crystal fauvette bird speaker for mp3 (http://www.bedbathandbeyond.com/product.asp?SKU=203946). Is this really necessary to have a diamond-encrusted iPhone speaker? Is a basic speaker not good enough?

      Or take the other day, I went to the Apple store to ask them about a small issue with my computer. The guy said to me, “well, your computer is really old (2008), don’t you want something newer?” But the thing is, my computer works fine for me. If I was a graphic designer and needed a computer that was a little more advanced in that respect, then maybe I would think about it. But in our culture, we’re stuck on this idea of ‘newness,’ that the newest, latest thing is always preferable to what we already own that may work perfectly fine.

      Finally, I have another issue with this whole notion of ‘development,’ and this idea that the so called ‘Third World’ is always behind. I hate the word ‘developing’ because if the West is always ahead of countries in Africa, for example, then how will they ever catch up? Do they need to catch up to our excessive consumption and waste? Is that really ‘progress?’

      But I can write a book on this :) Thanks for starting this conversation!

      • habiba

        I completely agree with what you are saying about technology actually working for people in Africa for example. Also, the thing about Africa being “backward” I talk about attitudes a little in my blog reviewing Binyavanga’s book and articles check it out if interested http://habibasbookshelf.com/?p=109.

  2. Excellent, just read your post! Agree with you about the complexities behind Female Genital Mutilation. Did you see the film “Half the Sky?” I liked some aspects of the film, but wasn’t a fan of all of these celebrities going to different parts of the world to ‘address’ different cultural issues, like genital cutting. Diane Lane actually expressed in the film that perhaps if the woman who performed the surgeries was given money, she ‘wouldn’t have to do these operations.” LOL. No girlfriend, that’s not how it works :)

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