Grow Ensemble’s founder and host of the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Podcast, Cory Ames, sat down with Corey Kohn, the CEO of tech cooperative Dojo 4, to talk about Dojo4’s latest initiative, Antidote to Tech.
The project aims to improve the technology we use every day by empowering the developers behind our screens.
In order to understand the power that this movement can have on the future health of our society, you need to know about the harm that tech causes across people and the planet.
This post gives an in-depth review of the environmental and social problems created and perpetuated by technology. Specifically, we’ll consider the issues faced by our planet, tech workers, and tech users.
Grab your blue light glasses folks, we have a lot to cover.
What’s Wrong with Tech Anyway?
The remarkable aspects of technology can be easy to see. It’s also easy to overlook the problems that the technology industry, and technology itself, can cause.
We experience the benefits of technology on a daily basis! Think: the way users can seamlessly toggle between communication applications such as their email, Slack, and text on their laptops and the way Apple products have revolutionized our communication.
The negatives, on the other hand, are more subtle. Think: the environmental effects of Apple products, the company’s reported mistreatment of factory workers, and the potential ill-effects of iPhones on our mental and physical health.
Edward O. Wilson, an influential American biologist, once said that “we have paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.” This imbalance is a recipe for major problems.
So, what are the issues that our “god-like technology” brings with it? How does tech affect our planet, its developers, and us, its users?
Tech & Our Planet
Like me, you may be surprised to learn that technology has a drastic impact on the planet. Sure, the planet takes a hit every time we make a new laptop, but how bad could it be? Does the internet not just make us all more efficient?
Unfortunately, the story is a bit darker and more complicated.
Physical Tech Products
When I think of “tech,” my iPhone comes to mind first. Heck, 85% of Americans own a smartphone, so I would bet you thought of yours too. While there are numerous tech and software products that we could focus on, let’s use our phones here for simplicity.
Manufacturing: Natural Habitat and Resource Destruction.
Analyzing a smartphone’s environmental footprint starts with the manufacturing process. Phones are made using a wide range of materials ranging from elements as common as aluminum to as rare and difficult to obtain as europium.
For all of the more than a billion active iPhones, these ingredients had to be mined.
Mining itself has a large carbon footprint. Not to mention, this extraction also contributes to deforestation, the destruction of natural habitats, and water pollution when mining by-products seep into bodies of water.
And, if it couldn’t get any worse, another major ingredient in our smartphones is plastic. As outlined in previous Grow Ensemble blog posts, this material has a tremendously negative effect on our oceans and the environment as a whole.
Clearly, the creation of iPhones comes with a lot of environmental consequences. The end of a smartphone’s life can be influential, as well.
Today, just 10% of our electronics are recycled. Not only does this contribute to our growing landfills but, if mishandled, toxic chemicals from these devices can end up in our soil, water, and air. Gag!
Fortunately, this kind of effect is avoidable on a personal level. Similar to properly disposing of your mattress, getting rid of your phone safely can prevent many negative environmental effects. Proper disposal can save the finite resources baked into our mobile devices by allowing the materials to be repurposed and keeping them out of landfills and the earth.
Simply follow these steps if you ever find yourself needing to get rid of an old phone or electronics sustainably.
Intangible Tech Products
Now let’s dive into the environmental impact of what powers a smartphone to be the complex and efficient companion it is. What is the impact of the tech we use every day beyond the materials and manufacturing processes used to create them?
Energy Use and Resulting Pollution
The main takeaway here is that our technology collectively uses a TON of energy and, in turn, produces a TON of emissions.
Some background information may be useful here. The process of generating and supplying electricity emits greenhouse gasses and other pollutants, generally due to the use of the fossil fuels coal and petroleum. In fact, the energy sector in the U.S. accounts for 85% of total greenhouse gas emissions, with energy-related carbon dioxide alone responsible for approximately 80%.
Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s reflect on the energy use that goes into our technology.
- Our technological tools, from phones to computers to electric cars, need electricity to charge. This amount of power adds up! Especially if you don’t use renewable energy at home or it’s not used at your charging station, our tech habits can create a sizable environmental impact.
*Don’t worry, your electric car has a smaller carbon footprint than gas guzzlers even considering the necessary charging
- The supply chain and transportation of tech products contribute to emissions. Think about the way our devices make their way to our doorsteps. Everything from microchips to batteries to circuit boards may be produced by different manufacturers. Once all of these ingredients come together, finished products can make their way to local stores and to the consumer. Different products and companies will have different transportation processes and environmental impacts, but supply chains observably have a large carbon footprint generally; nearly 90% of the average consumer company’s environmental impact comes from its supply chain.
- To load and store information, the internet relies on huge servers, transmission networks, and data banks. These require power and electricity to operate. Data centres on their own release 2% of global emissions. And the internet in totality, if it were its own country, would be the world’s 7th largest polluter. Yep, you read that correctly; only 6 countries pollute more than the internet does.
Even on a small scale, our daily online tasks amount to large-scale emissions. For example, every text-based email we send emits an average of 4 grams of CO2, a number that grows when we add our favorite gif or other attachments.
That is to say, with the current energy our tech relies on, every picture we put online and every post we share contributes to tech’s impact on our planet.
I know what you’re thinking: this post has its own footprint. How hypocritical!
Tech & the Workers
Phew! That may have felt like a lot to read. Unfortunately, the problems in technology don’t end there. Technology also adversely impacts you and your friends.
Allow me to explain. Let’s start with the brains and the hands behind our tech, the people who are responsible for conceptualizing, building, and coding our tech.
Many of the individuals who are responsible for creating the technology we use are exploited both psychologically and physically. This exploitation can be observed in roles from software engineers to those who work on the production line.
Many of us have heard horror stories about the conditions in big tech companies’ factories where our electronic devices are made. Forced labor, terrible pay, unhealthy working conditions.
You can even find our most well-known tech companies have been ranked based on how much “slave labor” they use.
These practices have continued into and throughout the past year during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although these issues are not limited to large technology companies, the people affected by them represent a human rights issue in tech.
You may be curious about how the brains behind our tech could be harmed by the industry. With generous corporate benefits, massive salaries, and the ability to create cutting-edge products and services that help people every day, what could be so bad?
In reality, tech workers are suffering from a silent epidemic of stress and burnout.
The culture within these fields is often to work tirelessly. The result is employees in poor physical condition stemming from a largely sedentary lifestyle, stress, and declining mental health.
Plus, employees often have little social interaction as they work behind their computer screens and aren’t inspired by the products they are building.
In Antidote to Tech’s commitment statement, a baseline assumption is that the builders of technology “have experienced the isolation and sense of emptiness that can arise when our skills and energy are devoted to building evermore meaningless products and systems.”
Brooke Kuhlmann, the founder of the mission-driven software company, Alchemists, recently discussed his experience with us on this phenomenon:
“I don’t think anyone should have to hurt so bad on a day-to-day basis wanting to grow their craft. Yet, I feel that pain of doing joyless work for industries that could care less.”
Equitability & Diversity
You may be more familiar with the equity issues in tech.
Despite the buzz, the diversity problem in tech is not getting much better. From start-ups to big tech, these companies do not have the minority representation that can be seen in the rest of the workforce.
And, when there are people of color included, workplace culture can often be hostile and alienating. To give you a sense of the problem, let’s look at two major findings from a recent report of 2,030 tech and IT professionals from mThree and Wiley:
- Among the respondents, 68% have felt uncomfortable in a tech role based on “their gender/ethnicity/socio-economic background or neurodevelopmental conditions.”
- More than 50% of respondents have left or wanted to leave a job “because the company culture made them feel unwelcome or uncomfortable,” with more women and Asian, Black, and Hispanic respondents claiming this experience.
If company cultures push people who are different out, how will diversity numbers increase going forward?
You can read more about this topic from Grow Ensemble on what it’s like to work in tech.
Tech & the Users
As Corey Kohn so aptly puts it in Grow Ensemble’s recent interview with her: “Users of the internet are being screwed.”
“We are being used for our data. We are being used for our attention. We are being used for our consumerism.”
And the list goes on! Technology harms users in a variety of ways
The issues outlined below just begin to scratch the surface.
Misinformation, fittingly referred to as “fake news” in recent years, can spread rampantly via digital news sites and social media platforms.
For example, reportedly, nearly 80% of consumers have been exposed to at least some made-up information about the coronavirus outbreak.
Not only is this false information freely available, but it can also seem convincing to some and foster more extreme erroneous beliefs. The New York Times podcast, Rabbit Hole, investigates this issue and illuminates the addictive and magnifying effects of the YouTube algorithm and the dangerous “rabbit holes” that these platforms can motivate. It’s a fascinating listen; I recommend it!
The ease with which misinformation can spread also dampens the positive effects of technology. Stephanie Fierman, a partner at Futureproof Strategies, said:
“I believe technology will meaningfully accelerate social and civic innovation. It’s cheap, fast, and able to reach huge audiences. But as long as false information is enabled by very large websites, such social and civic innovators will be shadowboxing with people, governments, [and] organizations purposely countering truthful content with lies.”
Another hot topic in tech is the issue of privacy.
With much of our most important information literally in the palms of our hands, users run the risk of being hacked and having their personal information stolen.
Earlier this fall, for example, Apple had to rapidly implement an emergency security update to counteract foreign hackers from accessing people’s phones. If you have an iPhone, don’t forget to complete the update!
Organizations including the government and your favorite companies can access this information. Have you ever felt like your phone is listening to you? Many people believe that through our data, our privacy is being exploited.
Yes, measures have recently been taken to protect user privacy. For example, Google decided to stop using third-party cookies, a major announcement in the digital advertising world. However, this does not mean that Google will stop tracking your personal data or that new non-cookie tracking methods won’t become mainstream.
Much of technology aims to enhance access. Tech, in theory, makes it easier to find information, to communicate with people, etc.
Ironically, technology is often defined by a distinct lack of access. Many of our most useful and most frequently used technologies are hidden behind financial barriers. These include personal devices that range from costing hundreds to thousands of dollars, entertainment subscriptions, and cellular data plans.
These paywalls can prevent having access to services as relatively menial as a Netflix account to aspects of the digital age that are significantly more influential, such as access to a computer and strong enough wireless connection to effectively work remotely.
This kind of imbalance between the “haves” and the “have-nots” perpetuates education and skills gaps along socioeconomic lines.
Some tech even has inequity baked into its design flaws.
For example, facial recognition software has a racial bias that puts people of color at greater risk of false arrest. Artificial intelligence (AI) recruiting tools have been known to disproportionately favor the resumes of white men. Delivery optimization has led to discriminatory advertisement presentations on social media platforms, such as Facebook.
These examples don’t even include the opportunity the ability of those with access to the necessary technologies to freely post and spread opinions online poses for abuse of minorities and those who are “different.”
Cyberbullying has been an important topic since the early years of social media. Women face a higher risk of abuse online. Overall, it is clear that the internet is not the same space for everyone.
Digital Distancing & Safety
Social media, instant messaging, and video calls all use technology as a bridge between people.
However, in another ironic twist, our widespread and increased isolation and human-to-machine interactions have arguably decreased human connection and social skills. In turn, our mental and physical health, which benefits from true human interaction, has declined.
Furthermore, online interaction may not only lack genuine connection but can be outright harmful and dangerous.
Our classrooms are plagued by zoom bombs that can occur during virtual teaching. As touched on in previous sections, our personal information is at constant risk of being phished and online abuse can be alienating and lead to further inequity.
Social technologies can be dangerous, plain and simple. Paired with the arguable decrease in human connection, technology may continue to drive us further apart.
Perhaps an amalgamation of every problem raised until this point, tech and the internet have been found to correlate with increased mental health challenges, particularly in adolescents.
It’s not hard to see why this may be the case. We’ve talked about “zoom bombing”, the decrease of good old fashion in-person social interaction, and the imbalance inherent in our technological systems, all of which combine to foster an unhealthy user experience.
What’s the Antidote?
You may feel overwhelmed after reading this piece. These problems are substantial and can have massive and rippling effects.
There is, nonetheless, reason to be hopeful!
The technology and minds that create these issues can also create solutions for overcoming them. Movements such as Antidote to Tech push ideas forward aimed at catalyzing a better technological future.
Antidote to Tech aims to create a healthier future of technology defined by human connection and uplifting the natural environment. Accepting and furthering Antidote to Tech’s commitments represent how a change in perspective could create change.
Corey Kohn notes:
Curious about these principles and what technology could look like if they are adopted? Check out the next post in this series on the future of tech to learn more.
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Sam Shonfeld is from Chicago, IL, and is currently living in DC working at a digital marketing agency. He’s passionate about corporate impact, loves backpacking and being active, and strives to positively affect the people and world around him.