Want to help save the planet? Hang onto your old smartphone

What we don’t see — because it is so carefully hidden from the public eye — is the ecological impact of our social media usage and the wasteful consumption loop we’re trapped in, as we’re pushed to constantly upgrade our devices and turn simple electronics and appliances into “smart” machines.

CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert exposes the dirty secrets of 'cloud' computing

'Each time you swipe, text, or search, in your own small way, you are contributing to a planet-wide syndrome that risks our very survival as a species,' says CBC Massey lecturer Ron Deibert. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

*Originally aired on November 13, 2020. This is Part 5 of the six-part 2020 Massey Lecture series Reset: Reclaiming the Internet for Civil Society. Find the rest of the series here.

The stench of exhaust and the rumble of a broken muffler are noxious reminders of just how damaging cars are to the environment. Trash-filled gutters and waterways clogged with discarded plastic also convey the harmful effects of the human hand on the planet.

What we don't see — because it is so carefully hidden from the public eye — is the ecological impact of our social media usage and the wasteful consumption loop we're trapped in, as we're pushed to constantly upgrade our devices and turn simple electronics and appliances into "smart" machines.

In his fifth Massey Lecture, Citizen Lab founder Ron Deibert describes the ecological myth of the digital age, wherein "the grimy, exhaust-filled industrial era would be overtaken by digital technologies that are clean, infinitely reusable, and virtual."

Ron Deibert is the founder and director of Citizen Lab, a research centre based at the University of Toronto, which studies technology, surveillance and censorship. His 2020 Massey Lectures focus on the societal impact of the internet and social media. (House of Anansi Press)

The pristine ephemerality of so-called "cloud" computing hides the true materiality of social media: the intricate puzzle of electrical wires, power lines, cell towers, and satellite dishes, never mind the toxic process of mining the rare-earth minerals required to build our devices.

We are living within what Deibert calls a "technological mirage," in which we don't see the exhaust when we send an email.

But that invisibility doesn't mean it's not there.

Carbon cost of email 

You may not think about the carbon footprint of your emails as you're shuffling messages back and forth with colleagues, but for comparison's sake, Deibert calculates "sending 65 emails is roughly equivalent to driving one kilometre in a car."

In fact, he says, "sending an email, or even a simple smiley face over SMS, implicates a vast but largely overlooked planetary wide system of non-renewable resources, manufacturing, shipping, energy, labour, and non-recyclable waste.

These are what Deibert calls "sunk costs." And while they may not show up on our monthly cellphone bills, he says, "they are costs that we will reckon with down the road."

In his lecture, Deibert laments that he has "often thought how wonderful it would be if our devices had a list of ingredients, in the way that packaged food items do. That might remind everyone of social media's intimate connection to the natural world."

Such a list would be extensive.

Have you ever wondered what makes the colours on your iPhone so vivid? Or even the way it vibrates in your pocket? While it all seems like magic — because it is presented to us as such — these features rely on rare-earth elements, such as terbium, yttrium, gadolinium, europium neodymium and praseodymium.

What makes the colours on your smartphone so vivid? And how does it vibrate? It's not magic — it's because of rare-earth elements. (Richard Drew/Associated Press)

These rare-earth elements "have extraordinary magnetic and conductive properties," says Deibert, "but they are hard to extract from the earth and separate from the other constitutive minerals with which they are found, at least without causing major ecological stresses."

The process of mining for rare-earth elements can be highly toxic, both for ecosystems, and for the people who work in the operations. Deibert notes that wherever there are mines, there are high levels of contaminants in nearby ground and surface water. 

"Long-term exposure to these chemicals causes major health risks, for humans as well as wildlife," he says. "Nearby villagers report grotesque deformities in local livestock, including sheep that have developed two rows of teeth."

What's more, Deibert notes, because these minerals are so highly sought after — for example, lithium (which is used in batteries) is referred to as "grey gold" — mining operations the world over are linked to "labour troubles, kidnappings, smuggling, and even violent conflict."

A shot of the Bayan Obo mine containing rare earth minerals in Inner Mongolia, China, taken in July 2011. (Reuters)

It's worth remembering all that, warns Deibert, the next time you casually swipe through your Facebook feed.

But it's not just the production of the device itself that is detrimental to the environment. 

After all, it's not as if we use our thousand-dollar smartphones as powerless paperweights or door stoppers. We stream videos, and connect with each other in real time, which is "almost like magic — insubstantial, weightless, virtual," says Deibert.

So while the myth of cloud computing misleads customers into believing that all of the magic behind the curtain happens in the sky, in fact, "cloud computing facilities are typically housed in large buildings or repurposed warehouses," says Deibert. And not only do these server farms consume enormous energy, he adds, "they require huge volumes of water to keep their processes cool." A mid-sized data centre, for example, uses approximately the same amount of water as 40 hectares of almond trees, three hospitals, or more than two 18-hole golf courses.

"Each time you swipe, text, or search," says Deibert, "in your own small way, you are contributing to a planet-wide syndrome that risks our very survival as a species."

So what can you do? 

In a landscape in which technology has become ubiquitous, it can be hard to imagine living without a smartphone. For many, it is a requirement not only for their way of life, but for their income as well.

Ironically, while kicking our global smartphone habit may be the most direct way of reducing the negative impact these devices have on the planet, what would actually be helpful, if only in a small way, would be to hang onto them longer.

According to a report from the Global E-waste Monitor, in 2019, the world generated 53.6 metric tonnes of e-waste, and is projected to grow to 74.7 metric tonnes by 2030. (Sinisa Jolic, Ben Shannon)

Astra Taylor, author of The People's Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, says that as consumers, we need to be angrier about "planned obsolescence," which ensures the devices break so that we have to buy new ones.

Every time a new iPhone is released, there is pressure to upgrade. What's more, notes Taylor, "our devices are not interoperable," meaning they're not made to work together, a dead end that locks us into buying more and more stuff "that is incredibly hard to recycle and is toxic for communities."

We have lived in this culture of planned obsolescence and disposable wealth for far too long, says Deibert. 

"We have become accustomed to a regular turnover of our consumer electronics," he says. And once those devices no longer work, we give them little thought, never mind the energy and extractive processes that are required to power it all.

Our devices are precious, says Taylor. They are composed of rare elements, and we should treat them as such, instead of treating them as disposable.

About the author

Ramona Pringle, Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology. 

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