by Jordan Bak
Written for Consumption and Waste (LARTS 221, Fall 2013)
The Nexus 7 tablet has claimed a place in today’s culture with its hipster advertising, likely to be carried around by men and women with button-down shirts, skinny jeans, Converses, and glasses with enormous square lenses. It seems like a device of the future, a device that symbolizes the American desires to progress, to work harder, and to be stronger. Google looks to move past the aging Personal Computers (PCs) of yesteryear with paperweight Android tablets. However, because of their lack of functionality in editing videos and synthesizing music, many tablets, including the Nexus 7, have not quite made their mark. Without actually filling a niche in our technologically obsessed society, the Nexus 7 is useless. The amount of human and natural resources that we scavenge to build millions of these commodities that serve no important purpose results in extensive “e-waste” pollution, harmful to the environment and human health. The thousands of employees, earning insufficient pay while tediously piecing together these wasteful items without direct exposure to the light of day need and deserve attention and respect. And yet, we as consumers do not think about who or what goes into the production of these tablets; we buy them only because of their trendiness and modernity.
Like many trends, the life and selling power of the Nexus 7 must end at some point in the near future. During the second quarter of each succeeding year, Google will do away with the current model and introduce a new, awe-inspiring version of the tablet for consumers. This “planned obsolescence,” according to Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, is a never-ending cycle for businesses, for factory workers, and for those who scavenge the earth and run man-made laboratories for manufacturing materials. All of this for what? Well, for the same reason as the companies that fabricate the very clothes on their backs: to sell millions of items to the public while said item is socially “cool.” This is all reflected in Google’s YouTube commercial for the Nexus 7. The opening of the video shows a young boy, probably in secondary school, wearing a Justin Bieber-esque hairdo with a gray cardigan, a striped t-shirt, and blue jeans. His clothes and hair alone signal the fact that he may inevitably experience a stylistic change and become bored of his fashion choices. He listens to an obscure rock band that will one day fail to capture his attention. Later, he’s pictured using the device in a tree house that he’ll eventually grow out of; by the end of the commercial, he eyes his potential love interest, a young girl with a form-fitting shirt, skinny jeans, and bangs that she’ll probably chop off sometime soon. The trends are littered everywhere in the video, and the Nexus 7 itself is nothing but the same. The device is just a fad.
So why, then, does the tablet command a place in our internet-savvy society? It does not replace a smartphone, and it does not have the complete functionality to replace a laptop computer. But to Google, this doesn’t matter; there is a demand for a device like this right now, whether it’s useful or not. Google commissioned the Taiwanese computer hardware company ASUS to manufacture this generation of the tablet for the people of today, not for the people of 2015, or 2016, or even 2037. The head honchos of these enormous companies understand that one day, people will no longer feel a desire for that extra device to carry around, but right now, they’re making money while the device is popular.
While consumers buy into this trendy commodity as a reflection of their own identities, a closer look at the tablet’s exoskeleton shows that it reflects the dull, inexpressive conditions of its production. Sure, the actual interface may be engaging and user-friendly, but the external design is nothing to write home about. Google seems to advocate its simplistic look, pairing the minimalist, “clean” appearance with a plain, facile website homepage. Realistically, however, the device is just a charcoal-colored slate. A perfect rectangle, clean cut and precise to the millimeter, with no room for art; it’s the ideal representation of the very factory in Dongguan, China, where it was conceived. The bowels of brand-name warehouses, factories, and assembly lines seem to have been designed with tedium in mind. A perfect example is the Foxconn factory in China, known for manufacturing Apple devices including the iPad. The building is comparable to a prison. The exterior has been drawn through science and mathematics, not the innate human passion for beauty. The side panels, floors, and windows follow a dreary, dull symmetry, creating an environment that is neither welcoming nor motivating. The interior, with all its high-tech machinery, looks as if it was drowned in a sea of beige. Its employees are all in uniform, wearing white caps and long laboratory jackets, concealing the colors of their clothes, and indeed their lives. Their eyes are tired, their faces glum; the reflection of their uneventful waste of time is crystal clear. They are neither celebrated nor rewarded for their exhaustive efforts to manufacture useless products for first-world consumers; they have no time to think about their own hopes or aspirations. And yet, this “invisible workforce,” in the words of Susan Willis, author of “Unwrapping Use Value,” remains hidden away (14). Big-name companies like Google don’t want the general public to know about the thousands of underpaid employees building their products under subpar work practices. Google is trying to keep the “invisible workforce” invisible. If the poor working conditions that the employees endure were brought to the consumers’ attention each time the Nexus 7 commercial is played, few people would buy products from that company, and the bosses that run the large empire in Mountain View, California would be losing valuable capital left and right.
The labor involved in producing the Nexus 7 is tremendously perilous, especially when Google’s minions are being paid so little money for their services. Oil must be drilled and pumped from the Earth and transported to a refinery where hydrocarbons, “such as ethylene and xylene,” must be “cracked” at high temperatures (Ryan and Durning 22). After more heat treatments take place, converting ethylene to ethylene glycol and xylene to DMT (dimethyl terephthalate), the products of the two hydrocarbons are combined to form PET (polyethylene terephthalate), a petrochemical found in most plastics (Ryan and Durning 22), including the rubberized housing on the back of the tablet. The body of the device, at this point in the assembly, has already released a large amount of harsh chemicals into the atmosphere, potentially exposing workers at the oil refinery to pollutants and carcinogens (Ryan and Durning 22). Manufacturing the microchips embedded underneath the glass screen releases even more hazardous byproducts, including carbon monoxide, “airborne particulates, acid fumes,” and Volatile Organic Compounds (Ryan and Durning 49). Once the tiny modules reach the ASUS assembly factory in Dongguan, China (Qiang), several hundred employees probably earning less than $2 an hour (a rate competitive with the Malaysian minimum wage) work 12 hours a day, 30 days a month to piece together thousands of tablets just like mine (Ryan and Durning 48). These employees face a number of health problems, including inhalation of toxic fumes and exhaustion; in fact, a young boy working at the Dongguan factory suddenly died from overworking (Qiang). All of these laborious processes are taking place behind the scenes, but North American and European consumers completely snub the employees and the inhumane working conditions. They indeed make up an “invisible workforce,” as if our products were magically fabricated out of thin air.
While we pay no attention to these human beings, who should rightfully be acknowledged, they are being exploited by their employers every day. According to Yusuf Murtala Akanbi and Bala Zakari, authors of “Workers’ Education: A Tool for Workers’ Empowerment in Nigeria,”
Exploitation is an advanced stage of deprivation. Literarily, exploitation means to use or utilize something. In this context, employers in order to achieve their selfish ends are utilizing workers . . . the environment is not at all motivating and encouraging for high productivity. Mostly, the workers become demoralized consequently dehumanized [sic]. (194)
Large companies such as Google and Apple are “utilizing workers” by forcing them to labor for tiresome periods of time with insufficient pay in order to make large profits off of them. Charles Duhigg and David Barboza, authors of “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” analyzed the working conditions at a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, China and found that “Employees work excessive overtime, in some cases seven days a week, and live in crowded dorms. Some say they stand so long that their legs swell until they can hardly walk. Underage workers have helped build Apple’s products, and the company’s suppliers have improperly disposed of hazardous waste and falsified records, according to company reports and advocacy groups that, within China, are often considered reliable, independent monitors.” All of this unreasonable mistreatment is taking place today just so that desirable customers will be able to find an iPad under their tree on Christmas morning.
Spending the majority of one’s days working tediously to make devices that don’t actually serve a purpose emphasizes the intangible definition of waste. Normally, when we think about waste, we think about plastic, paper, food, and other examples that we can touch or measure. But this is a different kind of waste: it’s a waste of time. These organizations with seemingly squeaky-clean track records are abusing thousands of innocent people, mostly in Asia, to satisfy the desires du jour of first-world consumers. These individuals have lives to live, children to feed, and their own desires to fulfill, but they are impeded from becoming “somebodies” because they spend their time making useless products so that we can pass our time completing unproductive tasks. Their minutes, their hours, their days in grains of sand are emptying the top end of the hourglass as we sit back and play Candy Crush to take our minds off of our insignificant problems. It’s no wonder so many of them end up committing suicide (Moscaritolo), because their lives have no direction; for years and years, they will subject themselves to the tedium of being invisible.
Even when we, as first-world consumers, contribute to the miniscule wages of factory employees by purchasing these commodities, a huge amount of the products are wasted and not disposed of properly at the ends of their lives. According to Valerie L. Kuletz, author of The Tainted Desert: Environmental and Social Ruin in the American West, “those paying the highest price for advanced technologies are often those for whom technology offers the least benefits” (46). Because the “demoralized [and] dehumanized” (Akanbi and Zakari 194) employees are continuously being exploited on a day-to-day basis, they don’t have the time, energy, or motivation to enjoy the benefits of the very devices that they labor over. And unfortunately, the “highest price” is the harmful consequences directly and indirectly affecting them. Directly, they are exposed to harmful and toxic chemicals, byproducts, and gases in the factory itself; indirectly, the entire world around them is becoming a toxic wasteland (Kuletz) with all of the accumulating e-waste and pollution that they don’t notice.
E-waste does not just affect them; it also ultimately affects us. If one looks closely, the back of the Nexus 7’s box contains a message in fine print: “Perchlorate material—special handling may apply” (Google). According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, “Perchlorate is both a naturally occurring and manmade contaminant increasingly found in groundwater, surface water and soil. Perchlorate contamination has been reported in at least 20 states.” Perchlorate may be detrimental to our health by impeding the flow of iodine into the thyroid follicles, resulting in hormonal imbalance. This can affect both the metabolisms of adult human beings, as well as the growth and development of children and adolescents. Keep in mind that Google also advertised this on the Nexus 5 website homepage, the sister device to the Nexus 7: “Focus on getting stuff done, and having fun too, without having to think about the technology underneath.” Yet it is that very technology that contains the perchlorate that is contaminating our environment, including our drinking water (EPA), and harming our vital organs. Here, Google is promoting ignorance. Google conceals what goes on in the industrial landscape by urging us to not think about the heavy metals and toxic substances that comprise the 1.5GHz processor that propels apps onto the screen. Those toxic substances, as pointed out by Abdullah Al-Farraj, author of “Assessment and Heavy Metal Behaviors of Industrial Wastewater: A Case study of Riyadh City, Saudi Arabia,” “can easily enter [the] food chain if contaminated water, soils and/or plants are used for food production.” The industrial waste that contributes to this pollution is generally composed of “organic compounds, inorganic complexes and other non-biodegradable substances” (Al-Farraj). Environmental contamination by toxic metals has recently surged substantially because of this increasing industrialization, leading to a highly polluted ecosystem. If we are not careful, the pollution that indirectly affects us may soon affect us directly when put in contact with the food that we ingest. And yet, while all of these factors reveal the dangers of e-waste, we’re being told by a billion dollar company to forget about the very materials that are responsible for our demise.
In order to preserve our desire for modernity, we need to build products that combine the appealing nature of technological devices with unprecedented functionality. Big corporations must shy away from designing absolutely anything and everything to heighten their pursuit of making money. For our future, and for the future of those who are not properly recognized in the manufacturing industry, we need to avoid purchasing objects that serve little to no purpose in our lives. Otherwise, each useless product is a waste of material, a waste of toxic byproducts, and a waste of precious time and energy. Companies must provide better, more manageable working conditions and higher wages for their own employees to enjoy the benefits of their products, instead of indulging in greedy practices. Additionally, we need to honor those who spend most of their lives making devices that, hopefully, we will actually need at some point in time, not just to satisfy an immediate want. It is time for big businesses to start getting personal and pave a new road for first-world consumerism.
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