2nd September 2015
Simon Jenkins asks when anyone last really ‘wrote’ a letter (We are slaves to the printed word, 28 August).The answer is daily; I love this form of reciprocal journaling and reflection, the tactility and intimacy of crumpled, inky, tidal, storied correspondence.
But it’s not just a pleasure, it’s also a moral choice, an attempt to free myself from the noxious underside of the digital technology onto which we’ve displaced communication.
Baotou in Mongolia is uninhabitable, its soil, water and air putrescent with radioactive sludge and toxins generated by the mining and processing of rare earths, key elements in computers and mobile phones. Many e-gadgets contain ‘conflict materials’ mined by labour enslaved to militias in war-zones. While computer assemblers in the Philippines are going blind, appalling conditions in e-factories in China are driving workers to suicide, and internet companies employ low-paid labour as the virtual equivalent of garbage collectors, cleaning up viruses, scum, spam, porn. Interpol estimates that one in three shipping containers leaving Europe is packed with e-waste, traded by criminal gangs and dumped in the developing world. In Guiyi, China, where women recycle this excrement, run-off from acid baths pollutes the waterways, burning plastic fouls the air, PCBs contaminate fish-stocks, and children have high blood lead levels. Studies on the health effects of microwave pollution from mobile phone towers and wi-fi show hormonal disruption in humans, genetic malfunction in fruitflies, aberrant behaviour in bees, sickly plant growth, and free-radical damage to the eyes, blood, larynxes, gonads and hearts of rats.
Digital technology, like so many of our goods and services, is fundamentally corrupt, since it externalises its real costs onto less privileged humans, 8 billion non-human species, and the future. Is this not a radical failure of communication, cognitive dissonance so deep it’s a lie? ‘Social’ predicates civility, relationship; ‘social’ media that connects with one hand while destroying with the other is at root dysfunctional, uncivil and anti-social. Freedom based on bondage is slavery.
How do I navigate the 21st century, yet not collude? I refuse to be online at home, and use public access internet (braving the miasm of e-smog in the library) when I must. My phone is mostly switched off in a drawer. I have an ancient laptop for final drafts, and a reluctant blog. E-devices are banished with smokers to the garden.
Is the digital age, along with untrammelled consumption and mobility, fouling our only biosphere beyond redemption?