My Bloody eBook Reader (or America, The Third World Country)

eBook Readers

This week, I was thinking of getting an eBook reader.

A long while back, I heard/read that the only way it becomes cost effective to buy one is if you read a ton (a book a week plus newspapers, etc.). In my case, I want it for keeping well-read in various digital short story publications because, at the moment, my reading experience of them is tethered to my desktop PC. (My screen’s not great for lengthy reading, and the formatting isn’t so hot either.)

So I set about learning about the market, and once I felt confident that I knew enough to make a wise decision, I started trying to do the research into the ramifications of my purchase, specifically regarding the use of coltan.

Coltan

Coltan is a shorthand term for columbite–tantalite. It’s a naturally-occuring ore that contains tantalum and niobium, both of which are useful in manufacturing electronics. Unfortunately, coltan has a history similar to conflict diamonds: various electronics manufacturers all over the world have bought from the Congo region and, insodoing, have funded various military groups from surrounding nations that exploit the Congolese people and their resources, using the profits to fund their wars. It is common practice within the Congo to use child labor (12 years and up) in their mines. (The U.S. no longer mines for coltan domestically, and attempts to curtail the use of conflict coltan have been largely unenforced.)

If you own a smart phone or a laptop computer, it was built using coltan.

Its mining in developing countries has also resulted in extreme environmental damage from the slurry of panned metals washing downstream: the countries doing the mining know HOW to mine it, but have little interest or inclination in doing so safely.

I had a profound experience with a history teacher in high school that made me always want to be responsible for my habits as a consumer, and with this in mind, I wanted to avoid funding this conflict any way I can.

So I started digging.

Foxconn

The two major eBook reader brands on the market–the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook–are both manufactured, as it turns out, by the same company, the Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd. also known as Foxconn. This same company also manufactures the iPad, iPhone, iPod, Playstation 3, and the Wii U. They are located in China.

I tried looking for information about Foxconn’s coltan use, but a cursory search came up empty. There have been a few articles about Apple publicly demanding transparency from their supply chain, but these have always come with the “I don’t give a fuck” caveat that it would be too hard to regulate their entire supply chain. (Which apparently is a legitimate complaint, as records of what ore came from which mining operation have been notoriously inaccurate.) A quick Google search came up with vague, tangential results, none of which specified Foxconn’s coltan sourcing.

Historically, China has been a go-to symbol of workshop exploitation, which American manufacturers are often willing to turn a blind eye towards in the name of union-prohibited profit. Foxconn is no different in this regard. There have been noted examples, though I imagine the problems are much more prevalent: it has been my observation that, in oppressive regimes, the rare few dissenting voices that rise to public awareness are just the few that escape (briefly) a government that beats the rest into silence.

Just last year there was a brief kerfuffle over the employment of free workers between the ages of 14 and 16 under the guise of internships, violating China’s child labor laws in the process. There apparently have also been a number of suicides linked to the company and reports that the factories are “labor camps” with “widespread worker abuse and illegal overtime”.

(Foxconn’s response was to put up anti-suicide netting around some of their factories: the tall ones, I imagine.)

Once again, Apple has risen to the fore as the one company to publicly swing their weight onto Foxconn, demanding a look into their working conditions, though no making no public statements about what they would do if they didn’t like what they saw. (That was a year ago.) Critics have pointed out that the Fair Labor Association program Apple paid to look into it is used by many companies in similar PR straits to create the appearance of active concern for their manufacturing’s human rights violations while avoiding actual action on their part. If there has been any result of their inquiries, I haven’t found it.

Basically, in most regards, Apple has striven to maintain a public image of in-vogue liberal human rights concern while adhering to that philosophy as little as possible.

As near as I can tell, other companies which utilize Foxconn’s manufacturing have chosen not to engage the controversy at all.

1%

And this paints my picture of the American corporate body as a whole. If you think of a company as an intermediary between a product and its end user, then the companies are the ones with the most intimate familiarity with the ramifications of their business practices, yet their only response has been to sweep the discourse under the rug as best they can.

I don’t know why people say my generation is characterized as spoiled, lazy, and despairing, when the most powerful corporations in the world behave far more reprehensibly. The wealthiest companies say it’s “too hard” to reform their business practices. Unfettered wealth has produced a world of zero personal responsibility among the largest companies, and lax consumer habits have, likewise, created a world of zero accountability.

Empathy has been replaced with plausible deniability. There is no crime that, with sufficient degrees of separation, cannot be rationalized to the point of willful ignorance. Every problem (worker rights abuses, war profiteering) is gauged and treated only by how it affects bottom line profits.

Responsibility has been supplanted by profit margins. Victory, at any price, is the clarion call, more important than self-improvement. Consumers and producers have both grown lazy together. People demand less of their companies, less of their entertainment, less of themselves.

Perhaps it began as a result of business analysts’ foresight stretching further than the lawmakers’. Maybe neither side really cared, in the end.

L.D.C. America

America is still a nation being built on slave labor; we just invented ways of separating the unattractive elements of it from the public eye.

The petroleum burned by our shipping industry is the lubricant by which this monumental feat of cognitive dissonance is achieved. It is no overstatement to say that the machine is being pushed well beyond its operational parameters. To take this analogy a step further, we could look at the global economic system as one vast mechanism which has linked up otherwise disparate nations despite political and geographic borders. It seems to me that the actions of this machine could be arrested by those with the money and the power to do so to effect the changes needed to bring those nations that cause their people suffering into step with the rest of the (tentatively) free world.

Yet they do not.

They permit these cruelties: nay, solicit them. The companies in charge learned that, so long as the people don’t hear the meat scream, they will eat it.

Yes, my suggestion is blunt. Am I being reductive? Probably.

The common rebuttal I hear when I bring this topic up is that the workers in these factories and mines, despite their oppressive and dangerous conditions, are making more money there than in any other line of work in their country, as if this were a humanitarian cause. Lest we forget our own history, the same offences of overworking, lack of employee safety, and promises of good pay occurred in America too: this led to revolt, violence, and eventually reform. Should the fact that these foreigners have no better work opportunities mean they are any less entitled to the same worker regulations that Americans fought for? (These hard-won unions are now shrinking in the U.S. as well.)

Corporate footholds in China are particularly unethical given its active oppression of its people and its prohibition of unionization: in China, the government is the Pinkerton Agency, and they are far more capable of quelling their dissidents.

Perhaps the internet would be a good location for a groundswell of unionization, not on a national, but on a global scale? In a world of decentralized, global manufacturing, halted production in one plant can be ignored so long as the others remain functional. Must our unions become global as well?

I recognize, openly, that there is, of course, no way that the various manufacturing powerhouses of the U.S. could offer their wares at the reasonable prices they do without buying into this engine of suffering. Perhaps that would be for the best. I may sound like an old man when I say this, but people seem to have lost track of what is valuable and what is not. Things are cheap not because our technology has become more efficient, but because we are sacrificing human life–human quality of life–to make it so.

Hypothetically, if the problem isn’t that companies will not change their practices, but rather can not, where does that leave us? If our hunger, not for natural resources, but for comfort items has outstripped our nation’s capacity for production, where does that leave us? Have we grown so weak as a people that we cannot survive without our luxuries?

If America must stand on on the backs of developing nations, then is not America, itself, a developing country?

I don’t want to think this is so, but it is a troubling thought nonetheless.

 Where Do I Go From Here?

It would be easy to excuse all this as a problem of biology, that our economic system (and our social environment) exists on such a grand scale that it’s impossible to empathize with those stuck out on the fringes. I don’t think this is the case. I think it’s laziness. I do feel responsible for and complicit in what our country and its companies have done and are doing. I feel that our parasitism of other countries has made our nation into something less than what it once was.

Worse, it feels as though there is no consumer-focused advocate for those suffering or for the damage being done to the environment.

It took me about three hours to find and read all of this information; in thirty minutes, I could have driven down to Best Buy, bought an eBook reader off the shelf, and had it loaded up with all my digital subscriptions, ready to go.

For all the need for news media content that supposedly explicates the rampant entertainment journalism in this country, I do not feel properly empowered to make intelligent consumer choices. Do you remember the Fair Labor Association that Apple hired to help with their public relations in response to the coltan outcry? The FLA was created in response to Nike’s sweatshop controversy to take the heat off of them and assuage consumer guilt. That’s simple economics: demand and supply. Nike needed a cheap way of getting the human rights assholes off their backs; the FLA provided it for them (and, subsequently, for much of the clothing industry).

So where is my supply of information? Why is there no demand for a simple, efficient means of making morally conscientious choices as a consumer?

What can I do to fix this problem?

What can any of us do?

To turn a phrase from Searching For Bobby Fischer, to put a consumer in a position to care about the state of the world and not empower them to fix it is wrong. But I have no answers.

My kneejerk thought is that, “it is too hard for me to find a way to fight meaningfully.” Maybe that makes me as evil as the companies that stand unmoved in their complicity. It is a learned helplessness that I feel. I am not a politician, and politics has become a game played not for the benefit of the people they represent, but for those wealthy who are the source of the problems I’ve just outlined.

One thing that I can do–that all of us can do–is to vote with my dollars. I can’t buy an eBook reader in good conscience, knowing what I know.

I wonder how many of the handful who will find this blog entry will have stopped further up, so that they do not have to know what I know? So that they can remain complicit and sinless ensconced within the walls of their own doubt.

Only, the problem isn’t just a matter of perspective, as the companies who use public relations as a cure-all seem to believe. There is a real danger to what is happening, regardless of whether you are willing to look at it or not, and it is growing; surely, it is getting worse:




©2013 by Blake Vaughn. The text of this story may be redistributed freely in its original form with attribution to the author, Blake Vaughn, and his website, www.blakevaughn.com, as under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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