World Wide Waste with Gerry McGovern

Andy Farnell 'Perils of e-waste and benefits of being a digital vegan'

John Carter
May 24, 2022
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Andy Farnell 'Perils of e-waste and benefits of being a digital vegan'

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Andy Farnell is a British computer scientist and author specialising in signals, systems and cybersecurity. His popular textbook "Designing Sound" (MIT) and pioneering research and development in audio DSP and synthesis defined the field of Procedural Audio. Consultant to leading technology companies, and visiting professor across Europe, Andy is a long-time advocate and prominent speaker on issues of digital rights, free open source software, good educational opportunities and access to enabling tools and knowledge for all. His latest books are "Digital Vegan" and "Ethics For Hackers" (Routledge).

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S1: Andy Farnell is a British computer scientist and daughter who is a pioneer in sound design. Reading his latest book, Digital Vague and gave me profound insights into the challenges we face in relation to creating truly sustainable and equitable technology. It has a clear path forward which involve a greater belief in humanity and that we can do so much more with so much less. I started our chat by asking Andy to explain a bit the process of what happens to a digital product after it becomes waste.


S2: You can take apart many electronic devices and you find that they're made of components. And these, you know, components historically is how. Electronics has always been made with hard rock radio valves and transistors and then integrated circuits and to many that are soldered together using molten salt led or ten these days on the on the board and what would happen in the old days is you would stripped down electronics, too to reuse the components. So we would take off integrated circuits. And to the extent that electronics is modular and many pieces of modern electronics are modular, we could take out, say, a camera element which has got a spy or an eye to keep us standard kind of connector and put that aside for use in another constructing something else. So electronics hobbyists and electronics repair people, to the extent they still exist, have always had this relationship with with electronics is that you can take it apart and you can reuse. You were used to subassemblies and so on. Now when we come to recycling modern goods, rather little of that happens. And if it does happen, it happens very early in the chain. After the the goods have kind of been received by like a warehouse of going to then say, okay, we can take that display off, we can take those loudspeakers off, we can sell them somewhere else, we can put them back into the market or re-use them. So there is a kind of mark in that, but it's diminishing and I think probably heading towards non-existence now. Most of the smaller goods, let's distinguish them from white goods to begin with, because that's a different matter. Those things like washing machines and tumble dryers and it's made of steel. It can be taken apart manually, can be the bolts, can be unscrewed and things in in seconds with kind of the white machine tools. And so that has a much better recycling prospect. Things from the magnets, neodymium, cobalt, things that are in the larger assemblies of white goods can be stripped down and have a much better recycling prospect. But then all of the other stuff, you know, the digital cameras, phones, tablets, laptops and whatever, this is a different kind of e-waste. Nobody is going to bother to try to reclaim that at the component level. So what happens to it? Well, you know, most of it right now, almost all of it is getting shipped abroad. So it comes over on container ships as good goods for us to use as new. It has an average life span of about 18 months, which is shockingly low. And then those phones and tablets go back into containers and they're taken to where the labor cost and the environmental regulations are are low enough for them to be processed in an economically viable way, as they would say. So first kind of step that's going to happen. There is a lot of it is just shredded. It smashed to pieces. And so that process is sometimes, you know, machine like these things, basically like giant wood shredders, you know, it unleashes an enormous amount of particulate matter microplastics just spewing out of that that are heavy metals. We anything that that that that those goods are made of including the forever chemicals the final of multi poly fluorinated hydrocarbons things like that was going to make a miasma of dust. But but worse is when it's not done by machines. Because who's going to do it? It's it's usually young kids, you know, 14, 15, 16 year old kids, literally with sledgehammers, smashing this stuff up. You know, you've got cathode ray screens being broken and that the dust comes out of that. So we've got this pulverized mess. And what we're going to do with it now is to is to extract the metals from it, which means washing it with acid like aqua regia type, nitric acid, sulfuric acid, and also things like sodium cyanide compounds, which will we'll pull out these metals them into a slurry. And then the very difficult task is to separate the valuable metals from it. So there are several techniques in this kind of stage precipitation where you can use different compounds which will cause, say, the gold to precipitate out or the silver copper or whatever. Or you can use these resin columns which are like big chromatography columns which will attach well, they'll attach the salts to the to the right part, and then they can wash off and reuse them. And then there's this new technology, which is kind of being it's old, but it's kind of being made real in in Canada, which is electrostatic precipitation. And so we have in the West much, much better ways of doing this, which no child labor is doing on the shores, using the literally burning stuff in a bonfire and pouring drums of acid onto it, and it's leaching into the sea and stuff like that. And it's all ending up in the lungs of those children who who really have a very poor prognosis, I would say.


S1: I was just thinking of there, as you were saying, you know, which which was a worse profession, the chimney sweep or, you know, the e-waste recycler, you know, probably the chimney sweep was that was a safer profession than than the child. You know, it's breeding in this this, you know, really dangerous, toxic dust.


S2: Yeah. It's such a mixture of different forms of toxicity. There's a bio accumulative toxicity of things that are going to get into the fatty tissues, are going to stay in the bloodstream for decades. And those kinds of things have, you know, genetic mutagenic effects. And that often either if the children survive into adulthood and they're going to have children with problems, and if that's a kind of an issue on the radar around these recycling plants and this whole industry is enormous number of birth defects and low IQ kind of outcomes for children. So that's not good. But then there's a sort of the immediate toxicity effects that metal fume fever and things like lead and so on will mercury will cause immediate cognitive kind of impacts. So, you know, these these these kids have got no real future educationally if they manage to get out of that kind of it, you know. Backbreaking and toxic sort of industry. And then there was the the sort of non-human aspects of the game. Things are getting into the water table, which we'll talk about, I guess soon as well. And gets into the water table, it gets into fish and then it's recycled back biologically into the human food chain. So people who are not in the immediate vicinity of the recycling plant are then, you know, having to eat poisoned produce.


S1: You know, somebody was writing a report that, you know, got some of it and is coming back to the places that send it, you know, in a certain type of climate that that that fish being caught and and eaten at European tables were showing trace elements of, you know, particularly the fish that had started are spawning in India's the seas of North Africa around. You know and so there's there's it never goes away there's still a lot of it, as you mentioned there that forever chemicals a lot of this stuff never goes away. It. You know or you know stays for a long, long, long time, you know. I mean senses of that the land that some of this stuff is likely to stay. Well, I suppose if it goes into the air, it'll probably end up, you know, ultimately moving to the land or the water. But, you know, when it gets into the soil or or water and it doesn't just dissolve, does it? There's still a lot of these materials are forever materials in in the soil or or will they degrade over time? Most of them?


S2: Well, elemental materials will not they will stay forever, because that's the nature of matter. It's it's not destroyed. So left we take, say, a cadmium, salt or something, a heavy metal salt that's going to stick around forever. But, you know, it's not necessarily going to be hazardous in that form. So it may be it may form a stable and a salt that's not going to circulate too much. It'll kind of become bound or attached to to something. On the other hand, there were many organic chemicals that we've mentioned, these by fluoro things that are used in fire retardants and things like that. They got a kind of half life of hundreds of years and they're very volatile. So they'll keep being kind of, if you like, raised from the ground. They can seep and leach and get into water and circulate around the oceans. And and then there are things that are simply very durable. I mean, plastics. So and then the problem with microplastics is that, you know, the more that you leave them, the more that they appraise and break down into smaller and smaller and smaller chains. And so they're just even single little polymer chains. And it's turning out that they are they are super efficient at getting around. And there's almost nowhere left on earth that there aren't there isn't microplastic pollution. It's in lots of animal life. It's in the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. It's on the top of mountains. It's at the bottom of the ocean in the Mariana Trench. You know, this stuff is it's everywhere. But the potential toxic effects are unknown at the moment. So that's kind of a little bit scary because it's an unknown there. But then that might not be so bad that these things that didn't necessarily exist before do exist now that are going back to the old George Carlin sketch, you know, and he says, well, you know, hey, maybe the planet that's the only reason the planet needed us was to make plastic. Now it's the earth plus plastic. So it's not like it's a completely unnatural thing. I mean, in a sense, nothing is unnatural, right? Because, you know, it's it's a byproduct of sentient humanoid life, is that we make plastic. Who knows what that portends in the future. However, it bodes ill for us in terms of how awful or whether it causes some other event, you know, like a new a new form of bacterium or something that, you know, finds that it can live in these polymeric small polymer chains or something like that, which is a big unknown surrounding microplastics. Really.


S1: Yeah. And I suppose the thing is, we don't know. So it's, it's like we're gambling with, you know, the future of life, hoping that it'll be real. Tively. Benign. But if. If it behaves. In the same way as the microplastics behave. It's, you know, it's it's it's it's not going to be good, you know, or it's unlikely that it's going to, you know, help life flourish, so to speak.


S2: Yeah, definitely. I don't think there's there's much there's going to be good. You know, it's just how bad how bad is it going to be? Yeah.


S1: You were talking about the children earlier. And these are children in Pakistan or children and in Ghana. And there was a U.N. report, I think, last year that estimated about 18 million children are either 13 million children and 18 million women are, you know. The other way around. But it's a substantial number of people. And who are the informal recyclers, so to speak. And this is, you know, the obviously the technology industry is very aware of this and the governments are very aware of this. And we just don't care. You know, you know, that's another burden that the Global South needs to bear for the lifestyle of the global north is now that's in essence, is it, you know, because there's lots of evidence that that this is constantly happening and there's there's half attempts to address it, but there's no real serious attempts to address it. Or or do you know what you're telling? Is it, you know, basically we dump our waste, this toxic waste on poor people. Is that the basic strategy?


S2: Interesting things are happening. I mean, the fact that we're having this conversation is very important. There are changes afoot in lots of parts of the regulatory frameworks around the industries. The most exciting thing that I've seen this this week was the the Royal Mint in Britain talking about a massive recycling scheme using a new technique and electrostatic separation technique to remove gold from e-waste. Now, I've kind of always but if you were a really smart person who wanted to make an investment for what outside the scope of your own lifetime, you know, for your great grandchildren, is to buy landfills, because that's the prime mining ground for the future, at least the early ones into which lots of electronic waste went before it was illegal to dump it there. The, you know, the world have kind of realized that the economics of the gold that can be recovered, gold and platinum, in fact, that can be recovered from e-waste, is it's worth it. It's worth keeping it here and not shipping it back and processing it here in the West to to recover those rare metals. So it's not like this isn't on anyone's radar. I think, you know, we're raising awareness of it and what we're talking about today. And hopefully it's going, you know, there's going to be more changes.


S1: Have you made a really interesting point in the intro? This is multiple, really interesting points, but one of them about the historical, um, repair or this assembler of technology that, you know, you could pull components out and is there any way that we can either legislate or so that we return to designs that are much easier to disassemble, that are much more environmentally dis? You take a particle or is this an inevitable part of modern products because of their smaller size? Like is this just a modern technology is is designed to be destructive. You know older technology was much more genuinely circular economy about whereas what we're dealing with in an iPhone or a Lenovo laptop or whatever is things that are among the least have longer least capacities to be part of a certain. Our economy. And if the hours are any way we can move, we can get back to a a genuine circular economy for electronics. Or are we trapped in this this waste this toxic waste cauldron for for modern electronics?


S2: And there's so many points to want to distill out of that. So let's just think about what this electronic stuff is. And it's nothing but cleverly organized sand. The miracle of the semiconductor industry is that it's made from silicon fundamentally the most abundant element in the planet after oxygen? I think so. You know, most of the planet sort of like made of sand in one form or another, flint, whatever. So this incredibly super, super abundant element means that in the limit in the limit, the cost of technology tends to zero. Which is staggering. You know, we've been coming to terms with that for the past 50 years, at least. If things just not only get smaller and smaller and smaller, but really if you look at the economics of the scale of semiconductor production, they get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. So there is this, you know, incentive to just it's a solution looking for a problem. It's it's an industry that's overproducing. And so we're just putting electronics into it. We're looking for places to put it. It's a push market, but it's not demand driven. The other thing is it's going to get smaller and smaller and smaller. So in the limit, it has zero cost and it disappears entirely from view. You know, the pieces of electronic equipment 50 years ago were pieces of furniture. You know, there were objects. There were items and objects within your household that you could see. Modern electronics kind of does this vanishing act. So you need to bear in mind those those two factors in terms of what. What that means for recyclability. If something goes to zero cost, then there's no margin. There's no point left in recycling it. You know, you may as well treat it as that. The sink is the environment. It just needs to be washed away when I'm done with it. The in terms of size, as things get smaller and smaller, they're now well beyond. I mean, I used to fix electronic equipment now, what, ten years ago when I was working with the smallest surface mount devices, I needed a bench microscope just to be able to see what I'm doing now. You know, you need a kind of times a bench microscope, because if you sneeze, you literally blow away £1,000 worth of components. So it's beyond the capabilities of of the human physicality, our fingers, our eyes and so on, to to deal with lots of this electronics. If it's going to be disassembled, if it's going to be recycled, it needs machine, it needs robotics, it needs machines and production to do that. So. What's the answer? The answer is is is a cultural change that we change towards modularity in that these things are designed right from the outset to sort of plug together very much like little Lego bricks. And there are many initiatives, many engineering projects, some kind of bit that have been going for a long time and are still ramping up now to change the way that the electronics industry operates, to change the way that assembly is done, to change the way that components are combined together. So there's a big incentive to do sort of just in time or last step configuration. People used to build their own PCs, right, to build a computer by getting a power supply in a motherboard. And they think, well, now that that modern that PC is kind of the size of a matchbox or a packet of cigarettes, and the bits inside it are just, you know, sort of the size of small Lego bricks, but you can physically still just put them together. Now, what that means, say, for things like phone assemblies, is that they can be repurposed, they can be disassembled and reconfigured by the end user or by kind of, you know, workshops in the in the economy of the countries that they end up in. So it's a very different way of designing that needs to be done. And that will only work if it's based on a culture of valuing of the components and their function. So valuing memory chips, valuing a radio transmitter chip and so on as something of value in itself. Which and that that won't happen unless you have widespread interoperability legislation. So this is a very difficult thing to sort of put together what you need to get the culture change and you need to get the legislative change and you need to get the engineering change all happening at the same time to push us into this different system of manufacture and re-use.


S1: You said there as well about cost it. You know, the cost is going to zero, but maybe that's because of the cost model rather than the actual cost. Like we know the cost to those 30 million poor people. We know the cost to the water system. We know the cost to Chilean farmers. You know, in the uplands where the lithium mining is occurring or in the western lowlands to the western lowland gorillas where coltan is mined out, to the Taiwanese farmers who don't have enough water because the water is going to the chip, you know, plant the, you know, so there's there's lots of course, we just don't measure them. And I think maybe we need a different sort of cost model that actually looks at the total cost of this, not simply the cost to, you know, just manufacturing, you know, that for Intel or otherwise, maybe our maybe our cost models are all wrong.


S2: I think they always have been. But these grotesque externalities have always been part of industry. I mean, since the Industrial Revolution, we're much more aware of them now. And yet how do we bring those in which will provide further incentives to reusing components? And the standardization and the interoperability stuff is so important for other reasons why it's it's liberating. It breaks down monopolies. You know, it provides opportunity for innovation and for new companies to spring up using reconfigurations and reuses of old technology. It's so enabling for the economy in other ways as well. So it's something we really want to move towards. Yeah.


S1: Do you think young people are actually aware of these issues and in the extent that they need to be? And also, you know, a point that you made in your your excellent book, you know, about the need to remove technology from schools, which seems like a like a heretical thing for a technologist like yourself to be proposing, but that, you know, what we need is, you know, maybe less technology in schools and more education with our young people about the entire awareness of of of living and the impacts are, you know, maybe I'd like to say something about those those topics.


S2: Well, this is a huge, huge cultural subject. It's it's no longer about e-waste. E-waste is a symptom of. A culture and society, a way of doing industry that we live in which we know is not sustainable, which we know has profound mental, psychological, educational effects on us. The depression, the teen suicides, that sort of anomie and alienation, that's all come from what ostensibly is a wonderful thing. This is brilliant technology that's supposed to bring us all together and revolutionize the world and so on. And that's not what's happened. You know, we can I can look back in my life in 50 years and remember the optimism of being a kid, growing up, playing with electronics in the seventies and eighties, and then seeing now that the those tools of enabling tools have been turned around to become tools of control monitoring. Very dystopian kind of cybernetic governance model. That's that's it. You know, if even the father of cybernetics himself, Norman Norman Wigner, said, you know, he was really against it. He kind of likened it to eugenics, said that this is a dark path. If you start to apply this so socially. So there's there's that side to it in which young people are utterly lost in their relationship to technology. It's not something that they feel that serves them. It's something that they feel they are already enslaved to. From very early age, the kind of behavioral paradigms that they see, the addiction that the parents will be on the phone almost constantly from the moment that they're born. They they have to compete with the phone for attachment needs. And so, yeah, there's this bit this big picture, if you like, a sociological or psychological relationship between young people and technology. Now that you have to take into mind before you can even start to think about these questions. They. You know, there's a total absence as far as I can see, of teaching about technology. And my tagline is that we should teach our children about technology and not allow them to be taught by technology. Because what's happening is that technology is replacing the teachers, of course, because it's, you know, it's efficient and they can use lower skilled people and just give the kids a tablet and some Microsoft software or something. And, you know, and they're you know, then they're brand loyal for life. They're drawn in. But also, you can you can mine them for data, psychometric data, which is part of the surveillance capitalism and the whole kind of cybernetic machinery. So there's not there's not much that's a positive, positive relationship there between young people in technology at the moment. And I think before we can move forward with these environmental questions, because we're going to depend on their on them, on their their behavior in the future, we need to win back hearts and minds that way. We need to for the children for the kids to take back tech. They need to feel ownership and stewardship and sort of some some control in their relationship to technology. And at the moment, it's going completely the opposite way. Technology is becoming something further and further from their their sphere of influence.


S1: I think maybe connected with that and. We need them to kind of take back their environment to some extent in the sense of, you know, a lot of people who and I talked to about, you know, my book called Like Waste or, you know, digital and stuff like that. They literally do think it's all in the cloud, like there's this disassociation or increasing disassociation and separation. You don't see, you know, the impact of what you do or, you know, you don't see yourself walking in the sand. You don't see your footprints. You know, you're disassociated. And there's no sense of the material or either the technology or that that that you were a kind of an actor within your environment impacting that environment. So you'll see it, you know, demonstrations for, you know, which is which is good for the environment and young people. But I'm taking tons and tons of orders and uploading to the cloud and letters devices. And, you know, they're they're pro the environment, but they don't in any way think that that this device they have in their hand, you know, are all go is tens of thousands of photos that is been taken has an impact.


S2: I absolutely agree with this. It's this sense of disassociation on many levels, the psychological process of dissociation that which is not being present is a you know, that's an aspect of the use of technology. But then the physical the physical technology itself, the lack of association of what you do with anything material, it's utterly abstracted. And like, as you say, kind of when the when there was a study done and several hundred children were asked to draw pictures of the Internet and they kind of drew clouds and sort of like a map in the sky. And there's Google land and there's e-Bay land and there's next Netflix land. And it's the idea of a physical computer. If you come back sort of 30 years and ask children to draw that, they would have drawn physical computers, whereas the modern kids have drawn these iconic versions that were a little bird for Twitter. And that's all the icons, you know, a safe button, a picture of a sort of a save icon, the floppy disk icon, to indicate the idea that there was there's a place somewhere in the in the abstract void that you could write data to. And I think that theme maybe meshes with one of the ones I bring up in digital week and about the meat industry. You know, I grew up in a little cottage farm where we you know, I've at least had to round up the chickens knowing their fate. I wasn't you know, I didn't have to actually kill them myself. But we, you know, we had a connection with our food at the very least. Then in the kind of seventies and eighties, there was halo, a horse self-sufficiency fad. And people well, we I think we probably grew about a half of our own produce and sort of shared it with other people in the village. Well, you know, now everything is behind the curtain, you know, it's Tesco's or Sainsbury's or whatever, and you've no idea where food comes from or how it goes. So that's happened with technology, the same thing. And whether or not that connection can be re-established and what that what that would mean or how, I don't know, but it's definitely missing now.


S1: Yeah. And maybe that moving on to what we can do about this, you know, and there's two things. There's a fascinating thing you talk about in your book about the intelligence amplification. Yeah. As opposed to a I and remind me of something that I've been working on myself is not as fully realized as a theory, but it's a kind of like if it had a tagline, it would be born your own energy that we, you know, this feeling or that sense that we are increasingly replacing things that we could physically do and would be good for us, healthy and all sorts of things mentally. Like, you know, if I instead of if I, I don't send too many letters, physical letters anymore. But if I have to send a letter, I can never remember how much the postage was. So, you know, I'm always, you know, going to go, go. But I could remember there really made the effort, you know, so instead of using my memory or instead of, you know, getting up and going out and doing something and that there's so many things that. We could do physically that are good for us and good for the planet, good for our health, good for social interaction, good. But where we're getting the technology to do it out of convenience because Amazon or whatever in the process and I think it feels to me that there's a link, you know, that idea of burn your own energy, you know, rather than, you know, the energy of a device or a machine in the process. There's a kind of a connection with this concept. You have are intelligence amplification as opposed to artificial intelligence? You maybe tell us a little bit about, you know, from the point of view of this seems like a path forward where none of us are saying, let's get rid of technology. That's not the debate remotely. But, you know, this seems like a potential path forward. Just give us give us a bit of insight on it.


S2: I you know, there's a nice quote by the artist writer Max Max Fresh. It says that technology is a way for humans to not experience the world. It's a way. It's the distancing effect, the action at a distance, the diffusion of responsibility, the loss of the things that go along with technology, the world that they they they they move us from out of the physical realm, from the material realm into the kind of world of pure thought, you know, and from the sort of enlightenment trajectory that that is kind of more noble. You know, it's the noble thing is to be is to be pure thoughts, more godlike. You know, there's there's a quasi religion around technology. You have to accept that it's there from it. Nature is writing. And interesting what comes from the German scholar, even Heidegger and people like that who you can't even speak of these days. But they got it. They said, you know, wow, there there is this. And in Silicon Valley, there's this sort of cosmist thing still going on where they just want to upload themselves into the cloud and become non embodied beings, immortal, when omnipotent and so on, that there is this definite quasi religious angle to technological trajectories. And what it's doing, you know, is this is taking people into a realm in which they are foregoing. They are they are abrogating, abdicating responsibility for things. I think that convenience is a really dirty word. It's an insidious work because it's used so, so easily, kind of slipped into a conversation. Well, that's convenient, isn't it? Without. And it kind of stops examination. It's a well, who would not want convenience? Well, you know, too much convenience is going to kill you. Atrophy your muscles. Atrophy your mind would strip you of all agency self-determination. It's like any drug, you know that it's seductive. It pulls you in and eventually that. But it's an original deadly sin. Is this sloth, I guess is the one is slothful that that tendency, what the Greeks were called towards Thanatos towards death and forgetfulness is a seductive side of of technology that will do everything for you because it reduces you back to an infantile state of dependency. So how do you fight that? Well, you have to integrate technology in it has Aristotle and Heidegger and people like that had had seen this. It becomes an extension of the mind body. So the technology is it's not a substitute for yourself or an alternative for the self, but it's an extension of the self, and that is intelligence amplification. And it goes back to the old idea. You know, there's these two fundamentally conflicting models of technology. One is AI, which is that technology is at all extends your mind body. It allows you to amplify thought and action and empowers you. Whereas the modern that the trajectory that we're heading down with technology right now is more towards A.I., which is cybernetic governance, which is unthinking use of technology. You know, this literally books on user interface design don't make me think in which your relationship with technology is don't well, it's going to do everything for you so you can just regress and kind of lay back and into the land of milk and honey. And you know what? Don't worry. The technology's got your back. Well, you know, that's that's the path to to nihilistic. Nonexistence. Yeah.


S1: Yeah. You know, it's it's it's interesting you what you said there as well. Don't make me think. Because that's a it's also a broken user experience, which for years I thought was, you know, the the amazing, you know, result, you know, the ultimate result of a good designer, you know, would be, you know, making the process so that you're renewing your your car tax or whatever. In the end, you know, in a way that's so simple, you don't have to think about it. You know, the steps are a really well-designed and most people who would have been involved in that would not have thought of themselves as dystopian designers.


S2: No, not at all. It's, um. Is crook. Crook, isn't it? Crook, I think, yeah. I mean, I'm not, I'm not I don't wanna rag on him. He's, you know, that there is a, there is wisdom in that, right. There is from a if you reduce the scope of what you're thinking about to slick into action, then that of thing make me think, you know what that that's what a great title and what, what a great way to do it. But, but what is the thing that you're not thinking about is the question what is it that you wish to push from your mind? And you mentioned. So you're not doing your tax. Well, you'd like a very low friction, slick way to do your thing. Let's take it to the limit. Why are you even doing your tax in the first place? If it's something for which you want to abrogate all responsibility and knowledge and oversight, why doesn't the government just do it for you or somebody else or some other some machinery? And so the question becomes, well, what is it that you wish to actively engage in in life? What do you wish to have control over and why? Because what we're actually creating of a lot of technology is just what? David Gray Because it's like bullshit. It's bullshit economies, it's a make work economy in which we write software to solve problems that don't exist so that people have kind of got something to do. And so often like as a sort of legacy of an a job that existed before and it's now mutated into the digital domain and it carries on as a zombie job where somebody's got to do that. You know, you have a suite of software, things that do that, but nobody really cares. They just want to, um, what they'd really like is a little packing bird that Homer Simpson has in that and the episode where he has to run the nuclear power plant from home to remember that. And he's just like stupid bird, you know, it's pecking away at the wiki. That's really what we're constructing with lots of technology. We might as well replace ourselves with with small shelves, with small scripts, with AI and things. That is a very dangerous path to go down. If oil thinking about how do why how do I shrug agency and responsibility through technology, you're left with nothing of your own life or society.


S1: Well, now, I don't know if it's an example, exact example of intelligence amplification or human application, but it's something that I've been reading a lot about over the last couple of years. Bicycles and how that a bicycle, if you go ten kilometres in a bicycle versus walking ten kilometers, there's actually less CO2 emitted cycling because of the energy of walking because somebody did all these calculations that that a bicycle was an amazing device in that it was not just neutral but almost positive from, you know, a waste or energy consumption. But but connected with that, I I'm seeing a lot about the cargo bikes now. The the bikes that are battery, of course, the battery on a cargo bike is, you know, 100th of of the battery that's required from an electric vehicle or certainly a vastly, vastly less. And there was a study recently which said that people who had bought cargo bikes were traveling or cycling to more than twice as much. So they were actually physically cycling more, but they were traveling. They were using the battery to go up hills and so that their technology had worked in a way, you know. So there's bicycle being an amazing technology, but actually adding a battery to the bicycle was, was another amazing development because it got us fitter, we did more shopping. You know, that that there are ways of bringing technology into our lives, which is good for the planet, is good for ourselves, you know, keeps us fed, keeps us thinking. Might that be an example of or.


S2: Absolutely. I mean. What you're saying is this is eminently sound philosophy. So it's a wisdom. You know, the bicycle is already an optimal machine. And then you're adding another optimal technology on top of that. These are very small, relatively small capacity, but efficient batteries and good modern motors to augment that. And what you end up with, if you were to draw a landscape of the possibilities of technology, is a local maxima. It's a place where, you know, all of the things conspire to produce a technology that's just good all round. You know, it's like you say, it's making you fit, it's getting you outside. It's recyclable technology, it's super efficient, you know, and we can have this we can absolutely have this in computing. Right. But I think that the reasons why we don't have it is it's not explained simply by the fact that we haven't found it or some sort of suboptimal search that the other forces that have been conspiring for a long time and still are to give us suboptimal technologies because that is very profitable for some people. And if we can reconfigure technologies, especially through things like open source, free open source, free software, open hardware, hardware, which is for security reasons at least it's verifiable, but it's also stuff that's not going to get into the sort of disposal cycle because it's got security flaws. It can be reprogrammed. It doesn't have these hidden enclaves which are Intel and AMD now. It's absolute travesty. What they're up to is modifying microprocessors to kind of make them defective by design, to break them in ways that mean that at some point you won't be able to trust them anymore. So you just have to throw them away for security reasons if we can. You know, it's such a big landscape of things to fight against, but if you can, there is no reason why we can't have computing technology, which is very much like the kind of the electric bicycle that you describe. You know, it's just a win. It's a win win technology.


S1: How do we get the change? Right. So a look at this. There's tree agents or tree parties at play. There's there's the brands are the companies, there's the government and there's the society. And you know what? Certainly what I see, you know, the path forward is here we see the success of the right to repair movement. Where does work is not a total success. But in about ten years there's loads of legislation rolling through the European Union and and the United States. And that was just a small group of of people. But I think that to me is the only place real change is going to come from is not from individuals and your individual carbon footprint and reducing it. Although that's great. But it is it is by small groups or coming together around interests like, like, like at the open source community, you know, and that building that the creation of all these a kind of community level or peer level type pressure groups, that because I think a lot of politicians want to make the change, but they're scared. You know, they don't have that. Some of them are bought, I'm sure, in everything. But I think there's there's a big fear in the political space of these huge brands and the power of the brands. And as if there was enough societal pressure building the the society and the political system could, you know, make these because I'm not saying the big brands are evil or anything, but I think they're just in a system that they will they will never be the initiator of this change because they they make too much money off of and power is achieved too much. But that that idea to me is, you know, if somebody is listening to this and you really, you know, collaborate, find a way of working with other people like you to create a pressure group. Because I think it's the pressure groups that are nominated from the societal level that have the greatest chance to drive the change that we need need to see. Yeah. What do you think about that? Is it or where or you know to some are forcing someone's lessons and what can they do and you know I give these webinars, it's not enough for you to, you know, to say, ah, yeah, that's good. You got to become an evangelist today, is it would you agree? Disagree. What do you think?


S2: Well well, let's because there's two kinds of strategies that we're talking about. One is on the individual level, one, one is kind of an organizational level, coordination kind of thing. I think they're both important. I think individuals are still scared of technology if we want to take back tech. We have to remember that there was in the seventies and eighties a a program of digital literacy, and it suited governments at the time to teach people of all the amazing things that computers could do so that we'd all become part of the digital economy. And our countries wouldn't be left behind, if you like. That was very successful, you know, and it kickstarted the games industry and digital film industry and just so much stuff. I mean, everything we know what Microelectronic Revolution has done. It's changed everything. But that was an incomplete revolution. You know, there's a necessary for a second stage digital literacy, 2.0, if you like, which is where people understand that there's a lot of bad things that computers can do and how do we stop them from doing that? It's the kind of morning after the big party that now we've we've been through the last 50 years, and we're looking at what are the effects on society, the threats to democracy, to threats to mental health, potential for dystopian kind of tyranny through technology and things like cashless society, which would be an absolute catastrophe. These things are until they're in the minds of people generally, there isn't that way to to move to that next step of kind of collective thought and coordination, because we don't have common terminology and vocabulary and language and so on to understand the threats and the solutions. So on the one level, you do have as an individual to sort of step up and be that awkward, inconvenient person, you know, the the unreasonable man by fu from which all change comes to say No y you're a restaurant and it's contactless and they scan this QR code and just be that awkward person who says no. And here's why, you know and have your reasons for saying or to be the person who's got the ten year old phone that looks really uncool. And there's you know, there has to be an element of sort of self-sacrifice or ability to step up and and make a statement on the individual level because people follow things like that. You know, they you think, oh, why are you being so uncool? Right. But then they look at you and you don't realize that that they kind of want to be like that. Right? So, wow, you've got that. You know, you you're prepared to stand up for these. Why? Tell us. And then there's an opportunity in the conversation to say, well, you know, I, I think about the environment. I think about the education and mental health of the children. I think about these people in faraway lands that are dying, chopping up our e-waste. There's a whole new conversation to have about the ecology and socio politics of of technology that's not around at the moment. People are just kind of like grazing cows in a field is just consuming. So be the ice breaker in that sense. But then when it comes to the the collective mind, absolutely nothing is going to change until that there is a a new information landscape and new forces in the marketplace like, you know, the open source movement, like the right to repair movement and things like that. But that can be seen as a much bigger visible voice and a movement for change. So we need both of those things. But for definite, yeah.


S1: Maybe we have reached peak peak attention, you know, economy, you know, and that battle of very interesting implications for for the tech industry.


S2: Yeah. Well, you know, you go to Douglas Adams for the answer to that issue. Remember the electric monks, right? The electric monks was a labor saving device that does your believing for you. And so you can kind of see that happening with AI. Right. So what I was doing, the way that it's being pushed and marketed to people, is that it it takes over areas of your cognitive function and your social function and things, your creative function. So you do that now you've got attention freed up to consume other things. And what you kind of end up with is this electronic device that's that's running. I mean, I imagined this story. I had this story in my head. I'll show a farm and I thought I should write. This is a piece of science fiction of a guy who loses his phone, you know, and for days and days, he's anxious and worrying about it and eventually realizes that they're never going to. Find this phone. But then it starts getting like strange messages and things. And what's happened is that the phone has just gone off and it's living it. So it's living his life for him to stop. You know, it's booking hotels and it's another phone. It's run off together because, you know, these devices have become defacto citadels for so much of our lives that they can. Once you and I took that, now they can function autonomously. So eventually, you know, he's homeless and it's like, come the phones kind of taken over his what was his life? And that's where the AI is kind of going. So once we've reached capacity, that's that's not the limit. That's not the limit for if you follow that kind of appétit. Active, I try not to use the word capitalism because that's not what I'm after. It's it's just expansive momentum for the technology is that you don't need people anymore. But what happens then is that the technology starts to push the people out to the margins in accordance with with all classic science fiction. You know, that's that's the and you can see the realistic trajectory of how that would unfold in our technological society today. We've become so much more disconnected with the things are elements of life. For example, you know, you could have the thing kind of go and watch a film for you at the cinema and then kind of use an AI to give you a summary and tell you whether you really would have enjoyed going to see it or not. That kind of crazy thought.


S1: Could we design something that. Could last almost a lifetime, that it's a kind of framework. Like you talked about interoperability that, you know, you just keep replacing the screen, you know, or gradually it does get replaced, but it's modularity replaced.


S2: Yeah. Well, yes, yes. But but for very small values of. Yes, because I would have already have that. I've got a heterogeneous technological life around me in my room now. I've got an old CRT monitor still. I've got a 1970s telephone that I love. I've rebuilt it so that it will work with modern VoIP and stuff so you can keep using technology and bring it back to life. But I think the answer is really no big part. Just because of the rate of advance in technologies. You within ten years you get something which is so different and so much more advanced that it completely obsolete. The thing that came before it, and this is very hard to physically make it connect in to operate over such time timescales. But however, if you if you build the end as a design criteria from the beginning using starting with few standards bodies for interoperability framework standardised connectors and you have a, a long term support and a life in a lifetime for them, which is measured in decades. I mean, look, some connectors are still around the the old Irish two, three, two and canon connectors. And they're still they're still used, right. They haven't changed since the seventies but when you've got people are apple making and use of lightning connector or something and then the next year they change it to something else that's not okay that's just that's deliberately breaking for forward interoperability. So if you build that in from the beginning, yes, you could do that within limits.


S1: If you're interested in these sorts of ideas, please check out my book Worldwide Waste a Terry McGovern To hear other interesting podcasts, please visit this is hate cty dot com.

John Carter
Tech Vlogger & YouTuber

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