Friday, April 11, 2008

Exporting E-Waste: Keeping up appearances of a "Weightless Economy"

Though the bursting of the dot-com bubble some years ago, and the on-going troubles in the US and world economy may have tempered it somewhat, the relentless propoganda on the "new economy", the "knowledge economy" and so on continues apace. The Brave New World of Information and Knowledge apparently breaks the laws of gravity and becomes weightless. What is the "weightless economy"? I found a nice summary of the main components here. The weightless economy comprises four main elements:

1. Information and communications technology (ICT), the Internet.
2. Intellectual assets: Not only patents and copyrights but also, more broadly, namebrands, trademarks, advertising, financial and consulting services, and education.
3. Electronic libraries and databases: Including new media, video entertainment, and broadcasting.
4. Biotechnology: Carbon-based libraries and databases, pharmaceuticals.

The adjective "weightless" seems to be used to suggest a greater importance of ideas over "stuff", intellectual property over physical property, information flows over physical flows and so on. To an extent it is true that reproduction of digital matter is fundamentally different from the reproduction on physical goods, which is the reason marginal cost pricing does not work in this sector. And is also behind the incessant wars over reporduction of music, software and other digital commodities.

But if we look at this "weightless economy" through a materials throughput lens, not only is it not weightless, but in fact it possess a formidable problem both at the source and sink ends of the materials cycle. The high rate of obsolescence combined with increasing use of computers and the internet in every area of human activity, has resulted in an incredibly high throughput of physical waste; discarded computers and other electronics that are high in toxic metal content.

The illusion of weightlessness is sustained in part by a discourse that elides the physical infrastructure that sustains this economy; the miles of firbre optic cables, the computer terminals, big and small that are the nodes of the internet, the ever-increasing manufacture of silicon chips, cathode ray tubes, LCD monitors, the list can be easily increased. And partly also by the exporting (both legal and illegal) of electronic waste to poorer and less powerful nations. The flow of toxic electronic waste from the US and EU to India, China and other smaller countries is now booming business earning vauable foreign exchange for poor countries (export of waste-processing services as it is generously called). Granted that information flows can themselves be many times larger in "volume" than the physical infrastructure that carries them, but that does not make the later soomething to be trifled with. Specially when the full environmental and human burdens are brought into the picture, the weightless economy doesn't seem quite such a light-hearted matter anymore.

A good article on this problem by Jayati Ghosh:

Digital Dumps: A Growing Threat for Developing Countries
Mar 17th 2008, Jayati Ghosh

It is a sight that that is increasingly only too common in urban India, and now even in some more prosperous rural areas of the country: ramshackle piles of dismembered pieces of discarded electronic equipment such as computers, CD players, televisions and cell phones lying around in the odd corners of offices and homes. Or else simply dumped in the open in garbage heaps, and then being painstakingly searched through by rag-pickers of all ages, who look for any elements that can be resold. Read more...

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