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Activists warn of new perils emerging in the digital age


At the time, few connected the invention of the automobile with the decay of the inner city. Most historians agree, however, that by enabling middle-class flight to the suburbs, cars helped trigger the decline of America’s urban centers. The poor, stuck downtown, ended up on the underside of progress.

Technological change is like that -- it produces unanticipated winners and losers. And today, activists concerned with the impact of cyberspace see warning signs of possible dangers ahead: ghost towns where local business and social centers used to be, toxic waste sites oozing with the chemicals used to churn out ever-faster generations of microchips or landfills groaning with millions of obsolete PCs.

If the bishops who met recently in Denver to consider the ethics of cyberspace want to do some heavy intellectual lifting, such activists say, they might want to start by thinking about how such outcomes might be avoided now, while it’s still under our control.

In late March, nearly 60 bishops from North and South America and the Vatican came together in Denver for a three-day conference on the new media technologies. Most spoke of the need to bring an ethical perspective to the often-confusing world of technological change (NCR April 17).

Observers who track justice issues related to computing and media generally welcomed the interest. “These technologies can turn our lives inside out,” said Richard Sclove. “They have the potential to dismantle face-to-face social communication and civil life. It’s good to see anyone waking up to the issue.”

While some needs are clear and compelling, like ensuring universal access to the Internet to avoid fracturing into a nation of information haves and have-nots, Sclove is concerned with less obvious matters. He runs the nonprofit Loka Institute (http://www.loka.org/)in Amherst, Mass., which advocates democratic approaches to shaping science and technology policy.

‘Cybernetic Wal-Mart’

Sclove is worried about the impact of unregulated online commerce. He predicts a “cybernetic Wal-Mart effect,” arguing that as more goods become available online, with a far wider range of choices and lower prices, more people will make purchases that way -- thus undermining local businesses.

Sclove doesn’t back away from the protectionistic thrust of this argument, advocating taxation of online purchases. He would use the revenue such taxes generate “to stabilize local economic and cultural activity.” Sclove said he’s pessimistic about such policies being adopted, noting that the Clinton administration prefers a “free market” approach to the budding online economy.

In mid-April the U.S. Commerce Department issued a major study on the economics of the Internet(http://www.ecommerce.gov/emerging.htm). It projects that online business-to-business commerce alone could reach $300 billion by 2002, representing 3 percent of the gross domestic product. Though it offers no hard estimates for consumer transactions, the report predicts that “the sale and transmission of goods and services electronically” will exceed business-to-business traffic, making it “the largest and most visible driver of the new digital economy.”

Rachelle Hollander, head of the National Science Foundation’s program in “Societal Dimensions of Engineering, Science and Technology,” (http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/redirect.htm)says that people need to act to preserve their values, especially those of democracy and community, amid this economic shift. “We have to maintain communities, use this new tool to enhance rather than retard that aim,” she said.

Sclove suggests that video rental rates and Internet access rates be raised substantially one night a week, high enough to discourage people from watching TV or surfing the Net. That way, he reasons, they’d be more likely to spend time with one another.

Sclove said that such a policy would initially be experienced as, “You’re taking something away. But the Net is already taking away our social and community life, the part of their lives people have most treasured and prized,” he said.

Cyberspace, Sclove believes, also brings with it a new set of labor issues. “Because there’s no strong union movement in this country, there’s a danger of hyper-exploitation of workers,” he said.

As a remedy, Sclove suggests creating neighborhood telecommuting centers, with gyms, day care and coffeehouses in addition to work stations as a way to maintain social life in an era of work-from-home. He also suggests labor regulations that would limit or prevent electronic monitoring of telecommuters.

Other activists are concerned less with how computers are used than with how they’re made. Despite the temptation to think of computing as an ethereal activity, the materials used to manufacture PCs are very physical -- and often quite dangerous.

More than 700 chemical compounds are used to make one computer work station, according to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition(http://www.svtc.org/), an environmental advocacy group that monitors the computing and high-tech industries. The coalition argues that the high toxicity of these chemicals (such as dioxins and benzene), the intense pressure to get to market quickly and the rapid growth of the industry form a potentially lethal combination for workers and the environment.

The group originated in 1982, when underground tanks storing chemicals used by one semiconductor manufacturer leaked into groundwater, followed shortly by an unusual cluster of birth defects in the Silicon Valley area. “It busted the lid on the notion of electronics being a clean industry,” said program director Leslie Byster.

Today, California’s Santa Clara County -- “Silicon Valley” -- has a total of 27 superfund sites, which are places designated by the Environmental Protection Agency for cleanup of contaminated soil and water. That’s the highest number of sites of any county in the United States -- and 24 of those 27 sites are directly related to the electronics industry, according to Byster.

“It’s very chemical-intensive,” Byster said. “Lots of the chemicals used to make microchips, for example, have reproductive and carcinogenic effects.” The coalition contends that exposure to such chemicals has an adverse impact on high-tech workers, claiming that rates of illness in the electronics industry are three times higher than in other manufacturing industries.

Ironically, computer manufacturers take Herculean measures to protect microchips from human beings. “As chips get smaller and smaller, they require more and more contamination-free environments,” Byster said. “One flake of skin can ruin an entire batch.” As a result, companies create so-called “clean rooms” to safeguard their products.

“These clean rooms do a much better job of protecting the chips from the workers than the workers from the chips,” Byster said, noting that despite all the expensive measures to keep the chips safe, workers are still routinely exposed to hazardous materials before and after production.

Computer manufacturers also tend to be heavy users of water -- the production of a single eight-inch wafer, for example, generates 3,787 gallons of waste water according to statistics presented at a symposium on semi-conductor manufacturing in 1993. One high-tech facility in New Mexico alone, Byster said, goes through 1.6 billion gallons of water a year -- 5 million gallons a day on some days. In a desert area, “that can’t help but have a huge environmental impact,” she said.

Joel Makower, who edits a business newsletter from Washington, said that computer companies have tried to clean up their act. “The industry as a whole is doing a pretty good job in addressing environmental concerns, with impressive changes already achieved and more to come,” he said, pointing as an example to the elimination of chlorofluorocarbons in the process of cleaning circuit boards. Further, Makower said, the industry has learned that being environmentally responsible can save money in the long run, avoiding expensive litigation and cleanups.

Explosive growth

The problem, both Makower and Byster said, is that explosive growth in the industry is overwhelming everything else -- including the time it takes to do adequate studies of environmental impact and worker safety. Byster’s coalition estimates that up to 140 new semiconductor manufacturing plants, costing $1 billion to $3 billion each, will be built worldwide before the turn of the century.

The disposal of used computers is a burgeoning environmental problem all by itself. Americans throw away 10 million used PCs a year -- Makower quoted a Carnegie-Mellon study (http://www.ce.cmu.edu/GreenDesign/comprec/index.html)that claims landfills could be choking with as many as 150 million used PCs by 2005.

Each discarded computer is chock full of hazardous chemicals. The Silicon Valley coalition said there’s a growing international trade in the disposal of used PCs. Many are shipped to China, Byster said, and burned there, releasing their chemicals into the air. Only 3 percent of electronic junk is presently being recycled.

Take-backs advocated

It’s in this context that activists are pressing the industry to adopt take-back provisions, in lieu of government regulations forcing them to do so. In Europe, governments are increasingly requiring PC manufacturers to take back their used products and to reuse them. No such laws exist in the United States and are “unlikely,” Makower said, in the current laissez faire political climate. But Byster said such recycling is critical to sustainable growth.

Byster also suggests that computer manufacturers be required to recycle water -- genuine, closed-loop recycling in the manufacturing process, she said, not just “we use it to water our lawns.”

It’s important that people concerned with justice monitor the computing industry not just in the United States, Byster said, but internationally. She pointed to an Intel plant currently under construction in Costa Rica, where lead-intensive manufacturing will be occurring right on top of Artesian wells that form part of an aquifer.

“The field is growing so fast, chips are changing so much, there just isn’t time to do adequate toxicological assessments,” Byster said.

An Intel spokesperson disputed the claim, arguing that the company has taken “extensive measures” to prevent both ground and surface water contamination at the new Costa Rican site. “We completed the country’s first environmental impact statement” specifically for this plant, said Bill Calder, public relations officer.

Calder also said that the plant will generate only a minimal amount of lead waste. “We’re talking about some alcohol wipes that will get put in drums and shipped off ... maybe a couple of drums a year,” he said. “We’re not talking about buckets of raw lead.”

Byster believes high-tech companies can do better. “The industry needs to care more about the next generation of children than about the next generation of chips. They have the resources and the technology to do that,” she said.

“If they can figure out how to make a chip that runs at 1,000 megahertz, they can figure out how to recycle water.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 1, 1998