Friday, January 06, 2017

1380 CE please... with antibiotics and vaccines, and hold the smallpox

Winthrop log cabin2 (abandoned) By Geaugagrrl, via Wikimedia Commons
By Geaugagrrl,
via Wikimedia Commons
The world's human population is fast closing in of seven and a half billion people. It's a world Mark Boyle wants to get off. He has bought, and he wants to sell you, a comforting notion about the cause of our problems: bad choices don't cause them. He blames technology, as a kind of disembodied external force. He has a simple cure, as well: get rid of technology.

Mark Boyle says:
My culture made a Faustian pact, on my behalf, with those devilish tyrants Speed, Numbers, Homogeneity, Efficiency and Schedules, and now I’m telling the devil I want my soul back.
Julia set (C = 0.285,_0.01) a fractal set
Julia set by Solkoll
Now a good part of this amounts to mere rhetorical flourish, but where he includes numbers among the so-called "devilish tyrants", my disagreement with him goes beyond practicalities, beyond even technology, and right to the core question of purpose. My First Nations teachers taught me every form of life has instructions from the Creator. My own religion, Christianity, teaches me the same thing: life has a purpose or purposes. I have the ability to learn and consciously understand the world, to apprehend ways the natural order works, and I believe my purposes include doing so. To aid in this holy work, our remote ancestors worked out a spiritual discipline they called mathematics. As Ursula K. LeGuin pointed out, numbers provide a bridge between psyche and matter. To reject the sacred language of numbers as "devilish tyranny" means rejecting hard clarity and truth in favour of comfortable vagueness, imprecise language with little meaning. What Mr. Boyle appears to hail as liberation, I see as sloth.

Fairphone_2-_Ethical,_open_and_built_to_last_(25254127233) By Fairphone (Fairphone 2: Ethical, open and built to last) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Fairphone via Wikimedia Commons
While I disagree with Mark Boyle from the root, I see plenty of poisonous fruit in the branches of the tree he and writers like himself feed, water, and tend. Put simply, his personal withdrawal from from technology makes no practical difference, but the vacuous scapegoating of technology does serious mischief to efforts to foster the genuinely ethical use of technology.

Almost all the smartphones available in Toronto come out of a global supply chain that gives the job to the lowest bidder at every stage. Buying on price alone inevitably rewards the unscrupulous. Suppliers who plunder workers can offer lower prices than those who pay a fair wage. Minerals come at less cost to those who buy governments, blast what they want out of the Earth, and leave the resulting mess to local communities.

The rewards of unethical behaviour have nothing to do with technology. They have not changed in the four centuries since the global supply chain prominently featured Black bodies, stolen from Africa to be abused as labour for the burgeoning colonies of the Americas. Then, as now, agriculture could be carried on justly, or with violence and exploitation. The answer to agricultural slavery in the eighteenth century was not magical but ethical: abolition. The answer to exploitative agricultural practices today is fair trade. And fair trade can work with the supply chain for technological products.

A smart phone today exists called the fair phone. The fair phone's makers have designed a modular product designed so users can expand its memory and other capacities, rather than discarding it every year or two and replacing it with the latest and greatest. If the company that makes and markets the fair phone fails, it will have been brought down by its less scrupulous competitors, by consumers indifferent to the environmental and human costs of their devices, and by the silence of those who should support an ethical supply chain, but have found an excuse not to educate themselves or to act in the anti-technology diatribes that pop up on  the web from time to time.

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