Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dilemmas of an ethical consumer

I have a dilemma and it is this. I'm torn between lusting after an iPad 2 and serious worries over the ethics of its manufacture.

There's no doubt that the iPad is a remarkable device (Jobs' hyperbole about magical and revolutionary is quite unnecessary). Several academic friends have told me that the iPad and one application in particular - called iAnnotate - has changed their working lives. Having seen them demonstrate iAnnotate there's no doubt it's the academic's killer iPad app. You see, something we have to do all the time is read, review and edit papers, book chapters, grant applications and working documents. For me that normally means printing a paper out, writing all over it, then either tediously scanning the marked up pages - uploading them to Google docs - then emailing the link, or constructing a large email with a list of all my changes and comments. What my friends showed me was them reviewing a paper on the iPad, writing all over it with a stylus, then just emailing back the marked up document. Amazing - this could save me hours every week.

But here's the problem. The iPad may well be a marvel of design and technology but - like most high tech stuff these days - it's profoundly unsustainable and it's manufacture is ethically questionable. Now to be fair to Apple, this is not a problem that's unique to them - and I'm prepared to believe that Apple does genuinely care about the conditions under which it's products are manufactured and is doing all it can to pressure it's subcontractors to provide the best working conditions for their employees. But the problem is systemic - the only reason that we can buy an iPad, or laptop, or flat screen TV, or any number of consumer electronics products for a few hundred pounds is that they're manufactured in developing countries where labour is cheap and working conditions are a million miles from what we would regard as acceptable. And I'm not even going to start here about the sustainability of those products - in terms of the true energy costs, and costs to the environment, of their manufacture during incredibly complex supply chains, or the environmental costs of their disposal after we've finished with them.

This may sound odd given that I'm a professional electronics engineer and elder-nerd. But I'm a late adopter of new technology. Always have been. (My excuse is that I was an early adopter of the transistor.) I also keep stuff for a very long time. My Hi-Fi system is 25 years old and is working just fine. My car is now 6 years old and I fully expect to run it for another 10 years - a modern well-built and maintained car can easily last for 250,000 miles. The most recent high tech thing I bought was a new electric piano. It replaced my old one, bought in 1983, which had become unplayable because the mechanics of the keys had worn out and I fully expect to keep my beautiful new Roland piano for 25 years. My MacBook pro (yes I do like Apple stuff) is now 5 years old and works just fine - not bad for something that's probably had 10,000 hours use. In short I aim to practice what's sometimes called Bangernomics - except I try and apply the philosophy to everything, not just cars. (I'm not exactly a model consumer.)

Maybe that's part of the answer to my dilemma - get an iPad and run it for 20 years..? But even applying Bangernomics still won't salve my conscience when it comes to the ethics or sustainability of its manufacture. So, what am I to do?


  1. I'm sorry I don't find the same appreciation for apple products as you do.
    From a hardware perspective they're great but I'm sick of the hype about them. Fair dinkum I'm wondering how long before the headline "Ipad cures cancer"
    What can't an Ipad do or be used for.
    If something needs that much Pr then I'm suspicious.
    Another reason is the lack of freedom with them. For someone writing an open science blog I'm surprised this didn't rate a mention in your concerns about purchasing one.
    But if that app can't be run on anything else and you really think it will improve your work life then don't torture yourself just buy it.
    Btw enjoy your blog. Been lurking until now due to being pretty much uneducated but still enjoy robotics and science.

  2. Hi Gully

    Thanks for your comment. You're right to make the point about open science and apple products. In fact I'm a big fan of Linux and have been using Linux in my robots since 1998.

    However, the problem with Linux - and Windows in fact - is that they need too much day to day maintenance. I became tired of having to constantly look after my everyday email/writing etc computer's o/s. I regard my MacBook as just an appliance - something that just works and doesn't need me to take care of it - that's why I don't mind that it's a closed o/s.

    Great that you like my blog. Thank you!