You take a look at computers and you realize that very few aspects of our evolution are better synecdoches for how far we have come as a human society.
To put things in a historical perspective, the IBM 7094 was regarded as one of the most advanced mainframes of the 1960s. As a successor to the groundbreaking IBM 7090, 7094 is thought to have given NASA and the US Air Force “computing superiority” during the space wars.
But the IBM 7094 had only 170 kilobytes of memory space and it was a large, large computer. 170 kilobytes is just about the size of your Word document today.
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In 50 or so years, computers have gotten smaller on the eye and more powerful in their abilities. Today’s mid-range phone is empirically stronger than the IBM 7094.
But this progress has come at a human cost. And often, it is to the most unfortunate of us, specifically those living in the areas where giant tech companies go for raw materials.
On Monday, a case was filed against Alphabet, the parent company of Google, Apple, Tesla, Microsoft and Dell in a federal court in Washington, D.C.
The suit alleges that the tech giants profit off child labour in the mining of cobalt from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The allegations reportedly describe as “Stone Age conditions” affect the atmosphere under which the children have to work.
Cobalt is a mineral used in making lithium-ion batteries as well as magnetic steels in phones, laptops among others. The DR Congo produces more than half of the world’s cobalt.
This is the first time tech companies have been sued for a fact that has been known to the world for decades. But the International Rights Advocates, the group that sued on behalf of some affected Congolese families, believe the issue cannot be left to public opinion.
The UK’s Independent quoted the lawyer for the group, Terrence Collingsworth, who tried to get to make, unsurprisingly, a moral argument: “These companies – the richest companies in the world, these fancy gadget-making companies – have allowed children to be maimed and killed to get their cheap cobalt.”
According to Independent, Dell responded to the allegations, saying they have never “knowingly sourced operations” using child labour. The company promised to look into the matter.
Skepticism of big corporations is a fairly easy thing to do. The gravitas of virtue signaling has become social currency in these “woke” times.
But with specificity to the exploitative mining of cobalt, there is a two-part blame game many of us do not like to play.
There is the part where mighty US companies, and others, push for the kind of trade liberalization that means they would not have to care about an extraction process that Amnesty International says involves seven-year-old kids.
According to essayist and public policy scholar, Siddharth Kara, what goes on in the cobalt mines of the Congo draws on the misery of over 35,000 children.
When the business news site Fortune conducted its own investigations in 2018, it concluded that “children were working 12-hour days, some for just $2 a day, digging and hauling sacks of cobalt-rich rocks, in a chaotic scramble for the hugely valuable commodity.”
This logic is not only limited to cobalt mining. African countries, and others as poor, are at the mercy of this globally ensured viciousness where the catchphrase is competitiveness, a race to the bottom on who can give huge companies the cheapest raw materials and labour.
Neoliberalism, the best description of how the Congo disaster is happening, is an often uncontested ethic of our day. To challenge neoliberalism is to go against traditional wisdom.
Perhaps, that is what makes the second part of the blame distribution a bit more difficult.
For a good number of us at the end of the business transaction, suffering mining children in Congo seem so far away. They are also not the favourite subjects of international news media.
Hence, what happens is a lacuna between the sufferers and their potential saviors. For all our theoretical morality, we lack an immediate appreciation of those who need our help.
When even the most well-intentioned people do not know what the problem is, they cannot put pressure on their governments to act. But it is still our blame to take, nonetheless.
No one is asking for anyone to boycott iPhones and laptops. The problem here is how much profit these companies are going to forfeit in making sure underaged children are not worked to death.
And until we are moved to put in governments that compel the accused to face the situation, our smartphones will continue to come at the cost of Congolese lives.