a feminist technology blog

Month: April 2006 (Page 1 of 3)


My genius friend Caitlin turned me on to the problem of e-waste, which I literally know nothing about.

Read this: Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia[PDF – use a free document reader if you hate Adobe or find that Reader 7.1 doesn’t work with Firefox.]

Electronic waste or E-waste is the most rapidly growing waste problem in the world. It is a crisis not only of quantity but also a crisis born from toxic ingredients – such as the lead, beryllium, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants that pose both an occupational and environmental health threat. But to date, industry, government and consumers have only taken small steps to deal with this looming problem. This report reveals one of the primary reasons why action to date in the United States has been woefully inadequate. Rather than having to face the problem squarely, the United States and other rich economies that use most of the world’s electronic products and generate most of the E-Waste, have made use of a convenient, and until now, hidden escape valve – exporting the E-waste crisis to the developing countries of Asia.

Basically, we dump our computers, televisions, cellphones and gadgets when we get new ones. (I will point out that we often do this because the computers end up not working for one reason or another that is not hardware-related; I had to junk a roommate’s computer because of an extremely gnarly Windows 2000 bug that had me and a Microsoft tech support guy simultaneously googling for more than six hours on the phone.) And even when people try to be ethical about it and recycle their components, this waste often (50-80%) gets shipped out to Asia, where environmental protection regulations are weaker, labor is cheaper, and Western citizens no longer have to deal with the problem.

Please note that I am morally opposed to describing people as “consumers”, and I am going to try really hard not to do it anymore.

Due to the extreme rates of obsolescence, E-waste produces much higher volumes of waste in comparison to other consumer goods. Where once consumers purchased a stereo console or television set with the expectation that it would last for a decade or more, the increasingly rapid evolution of technology combined with rapid product
obsolescence has effectively rendered everything disposable. Consumers now rarely take broken electronics to a repair shop as replacement is now often easier and cheaper than repair. The average lifespan of a computer has shrunk from four or five years to two years.Part of this rapid obsolescence is the result of a rapidly evolving technology. But it is also clear that such obsolescence and the throw away ethic results in a massive increase in corporate profits, particularly when the electronics industry does not have to bear the financial burden of downstream costs.

Europe and Japan are working on kick-ass legislation which would make manufacturers responsible for the entire life cycle of the product. Does this mean no more 1 year warranties, tech support which is for all intents and purposes geared towards having the support-seeker throw up her hands in frustration and buy a new product, and the creation of flimsy products which are supposed to fail after a year or two? My BFF Matt just talked to a guy at Electronics Boutique who told him that the lifecycle on an Xbox DVD drive is, like, 2 years, and that very few people can play DVDs or even games on an Xbox if they’ve had it longer than that (my Xbox is broken; Matt’s still works, which really impressed the EB guy). And Cory Doctorow is convinced that the shiny white iPod design was meant to attract scratches and fingerprints in order to create motivations for people to buy new ones. (I’m still rocking my 3G iPod, which is considered the freak monstrosity of the iPod world, because I love it and it still works. Plus it’s a 40GB and was fucking $500 when I bought it. Not going to junk that.)

This is a super freaky problem and something I’ve never heard anyone in the industry address. The government is unlikely to do jack shit about it as the US has steadfastly refused to sign the Basel convention treaty which would regulate hazardous waste disposal, and as we all know, Mr. Bush is not too into anything that would impose any sort of burden on big business. The thing is that it has got to be possible to make profitable and environmentally friendly products. Maybe a sort of organic computing brand where you pay more but you get a frisson of self-righteousness upon purchase? Suggestions?

why we all hate to fly

I went to a really lovely wedding in Seattle this weekend that required me to take lots of uncomfortable and inconvenient flights: a six a.m. flight, two layovers in O’Hare, and a redeye. Ugh. Flying nowadays is miserable. First, you feel that you’re being squeezed for every penny. You have to pay for food on most flights. Some airlines make you buy headphones. You have to pay an extra $39 on United to get an Exit row. On other airlines, you have to pay just to pick your seat, or to get a non-middle seat! I actually sucked up and paid the $40 for “Economy Plus” so I could get off the plane first and make my flight (ridiculous 25 minute layover in Chicago), but this shouldn’t have been something that cost me extra money.

But what made me the most irritated was watching people while I was waiting in line at 4 a.m. at LaGuardia to check into my 6 a.m. flight. United there has eliminated customer service representatives for all but first class and paper ticket holders (and remember, paper tickets cost extra these days). This means everyone has to use the eTicket checkin kiosks. Now, I love those kiosks, don’t take me wrong. They take about 1/8th as long to use, you can pick your seat and print everything yourself and take care of it all without involving anyone else, and I never check luggage so it’s a good way for me to sneak my giant rolly cart onto the plane without being harassed about checking it. But I am 29 and a technologist.

There were about 6 people in the paper ticket line, all men and women in their late 60’s, I’d say. They were very uncomfortable using the kiosks and wanted to talk to a customer service representative. They had eticket printouts and didn’t understand why those weren’t considered paper tickets – they are paper, after all! The United representatives would not talk to them, wouldn’t really even look at them, and just kept repeating that they had to use the kiosks. BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE!

You *have* to give your customers the option to use traditional service. First, it’s no big for people in their 20s and 30s who are used to everything changing every six months anyway, but for older people, or just people who aren’t comfortable with computers, using automated kiosks and the like can be confusing and stressful. I was telling my friends about this, and several of them said that their grandparents had never used computers (This is the same reason I hate the new federal prescription drug laws, which require elderly people to advocate for themselves and encourage using the internet for research, when these are the exact populations who can’t advocate for themselves and who aren’t comfortable using the internet, often because the site or application they’re using isn’t designed for people with poor eyesight or the inability to type or whatever) and would not be comfortable using kiosks.

Second, the kiosks do not offer accessibility options such as text magnification or varying input options. It’s not like differently abled people don’t fly on airplanes!

Third, cutting service jobs to cut costs = unhappy passengers, customers and employees. The few human service reps were overloaded and stressed out. They were constantly having to explain why they couldn’t talk to an eticket holder. The passengers were upset. And I’m sure the airline has cut service jobs at least 50% since introducing the eTicket kiosk. Bad all-around experience.

It’s the same way I feel about automated voicemail systems that invoke apoplyptic rage upon failing to recognize your 100th pleas to talk to a representative. I’ve almost thrown my cell across a room rather than deal with Sprint’s terrible automated service. And as much as I love the automatic grocery checkout machines, they will be used mostly to keep costs down by limiting service jobs. Overall, I do not believe that mass adoption of these machines is a utilitarian solution, in terms of what is the best solution for the largest number of people.

Automated service technology can be a good solution for some problems, but it is not a universal solution. And it is not a reason to cut jobs and underserve specific populations of customers. I know the airlines are in major crisis, especially with fuel prices, but shitty customer service doesn’t help anyone. It’s why I’ve basically stopped flying on AirTrans and some of the really low-budget airlines. United was okay otherwise. And at least it’s not Southwest.

class presentations

My “Values Embedded in Communication Technologies” class had the first half of our final presentations yesterday and they were really excellent. Two of my classmates analyzed Napster (the first, dearly-departed P2P network, and the second, mostly ignored pay-to-rent service) from the perspective of Yochai Benkler, who wrote The Wealth of Nations. I haven’t read this book, but from what I understand, Benkler divides economies into two kinds, the network information economy (new model), and the industrial information economy.

Network information economy:

  1. Fosters critical and self-reflective culture
  2. Promotes individual freedom
  3. Is a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere not hyperbolic or anything
  4. Is a platform for better democratic participation

Industrial information economy

  1. Centered in collecting information
  2. Engaged in cultural production – I’m assuming this means the economy is engaged in cultural production. I think I need to read the book to understand this.
  3. Focused on the manipulation of symbols

Their analysis was astute and it made me write a little chart in my margin:
Napster –> Audio Galaxy (which I loved) –> Soulseek –> Torrents
Am I missing anything? I was never a big Limewire fan.

Michael Gallope and Betty Ng presented on iTunes and Michael presented a very Benjamin-esque analysis of the application.. he’s a PhD student in ethnomusicology and he classified iTunes as a postmodern technology of consumption.

If we assume that modernity is represented by the Phonograph, popular around the turn of the last century, we can classify music consumption as collection, whereas iTunes, as a technology of post-modernity (I prefer the Giddens classification of late modernity, but I know what he means) is about being a librarian of your own music collection. Whereas the physical object of the CD is posited to have authenticity intrinsically (by existing), what happens when this is transformed into an object in a database without an external referent?

I also liked his discussion of music and identity. It used to be that you’d go into someone’s apartment or dorm room and squat down next to their music collection to see what they had. I’d hide my cheesy CD’s (Marilyn Manson if you must know) so prospective swains wouldn’t see them and taint what I had carefully cultivated to be a strong indie music collection. And now you have no idea, unless you go through their iTunes, and we all assume that you have mp3s of stuff you don’t like that much. I have the entire LedZep discog in a moment of nostalgic weakness for high school, for example. I also liked the point that in iTunes you can create your own genres and classification systems, and that you can publish your playlists to your coworkers or wifi’d coffee shop denizens.

And me? I presented on ID 2.0, which is coming along okay. I still have some data collection to do. I spent a ton of time last week puzzling over Infocard, and all I can say is.. are you kidding? I’ll post my full critique later, but it’s really hard to imagine that customers are going to go for this technology. It’s way too Microsofty, not very cool, and seems to add another level of complexity for the user without protecting against some of the identity issues that are the most annoying. I can’t say I’m very jazzed about LID or SXip either but at least they’re not an entire other layer of infrastructure that everyone will have to slog through just to browse around. Obviously I have issues besides usability, but I think that very few people in this space are really considering the user in all this. And not the user like me or like your friend who works at Microsoft, the user like your mom or your grandpa. More later.

Link roundup for April 21, 2006


Finally some positive press for MySpace! Columbine-anniversary copycat shooting planned, foiled when the criminal masterminds behind it bragged on MySpace about it.

links for 2006-04-16

links for 2006-04-15

using the internet

I’m writing a book review of the classic internet ethnographic study, creatively titled The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach, by Daniel Miller and Don Slater. Despite the nondescript name, the book is a very rich text about internet use in Trinidad. The authors find much higher internet penetration rates than they had expected, and they find that Trinidadians (at the time) used the internet in a very wide variety of ways, in cybercafes, at neighbors’ houses, with friends. They write:

This degree of diffusion was impressive, but does not convey the shock of walking past the yard dogs in front of a squatter’s corrugated iron-and-plank built hut with no running water in order to ask the self-evidently daft question, “Do any members of your household use the Internet?”, only to find oneself in a very well-informed conversation about email, paying for computer courses, career prospects in IT and library access.

I’ve been thinking about the way that internet use is embedded in people’s lives. I know that now that I work at home, I surf the net in an entirely different way than I did when I was a 9-5er with plenty of free time on my hands. When I’m laptopping around the country, I use the internet very differently from when I’ve just got my machine on so that my giant torrent of The Amazing Race Season 3 can finish up. Anyway, I was reading this article1 by John Carey on how people actually use the web, and I came upon this paragraph:

Lifestyles of people in the study group had a strong impact on how and when they usethe Web. Consider first a group of three recent college graduates who shared anapartment in Manhattan. They have very hectic and irregular schedules. On any given evening, one might be at a gym; another out on a date; or the three of them might be visiting a local sports bar. Much of their media use moved later into the evening and their apartment was crammed with media options: multiple televisions, PCs, cellphones, videogame consoles and MP-3 players. They also had broadband access to the Web and a wireless network. To reach them, media had to fit flexibly into their irregular schedules because they might not be available when regularly scheduled media were playing. Television was limited by having a schedule; the Web and other media such as videogames were generally schedule-free and therefore fit more easily into the routines of people with hectic, irregular schedules.

This basically describes me and everyone I know. Let’s look at TV: there are a few people I know who will make sure they see a certain program, and make it part of their weekly routine: folding laundry while watching Desperate Housewives, for example. But for most of the people I know, there are two options:

1. Pay for a DVR
2. Get all your media from the web.

Since 2 is basically free, since we all have broadband anyway, there’s not much compelling reason to do 1. When I’m watching TV on my computer, it becomes just another website that I’m looking at, often in a corner of the screen, movies and TV shows from past and present, US and abroad, cult and mainstream, cable and network are all undifferentiated.

I read something recently which referred to the “post-network” era of American broadcasting, which I think describes right now just fine. I don’t remember the last time I watched a sitcom. I watch a fair amount of TV: I download Grey’s Anatomy, Veronica Mars, the Amazing Race, and the Sopranos every week, and I work through the back catalogs of other shows that interest me. All of those shows, by the way, I got into by watching them on the web first (with the Sopranos, it was Netflixing DVDs, since it launched pre-torrent). This means that of all my friends, even if we’re all watching a show, one person is likely to be catching up on back DVDs, one person may TiVo it and watch it day of, and I may be three weeks behind because I haven’t bothered to download the torrents yet.

I’m more than happy to see the era of network TV lumber to a close, which may be hypocritical, because I still want to get entertainment products that I like and watch them when I want to. If I could pay a $10/mo fee for all-internet TV, with no DRM and total time-shifting, I’d probably do it just for the convenience, and because then I could watch shows that I really like, such as Made, which are never on the torrents.

But back to the internet: it becomes so hard to differentiate types of “media” from one another. Going physically to the movies, to me, is a fun activity to do with friends that displaces going to a club or a show if we’re feeling tired or there’s something really cool on. It’s not like I choose between going out to the movies and watching TV. Internet, video games, TV, DVDs are all kind of part of the same thing for me, and since I’m online most of the time, I’m usually working, taking a brief surfing break, working, watching an episode, working, etc. This is a pattern of media use that just doesn’t fit within old media models.

Big Media seems to be slowly stumbling into the sunlight and realizing they need to regroup; I have to say that the TV studios have been a lot less assly about P2P than, say, Jack Valenti or the RIAA. Anyway. Back to book review.

1.The Web Habit: An Ethnographic Study of Web Usage Patterns. Carey, John. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 2005 Annual Meeting, New York, NY, p1-18.

links for 2006-04-14

Comedies of Fair Use Conference at NYU April 28-30

Lots of cool people I know are working on this. If you’re in the New York area, worth stopping in.

The New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University will host “Comedies of Fair U$E: A Search for Comity in the Intellectual Property Wars,” Fri., April 28 through Sun., April 30 at NYU’s Hemmerdinger Hall (100 Washington Square East at Washington Place). The conference will feature copyright activist Lawrence Lessig, artist Art Spiegelman, filmmaker Errol Morris (“Fog of War,” “Thin Blue Line”), novelist Jonathan Lethem, essayist Lewis Hyde, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski, and dozens of others. It is sponsored in association with the NYU Humanities Council.

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reporting on science

I like reading the popular science press, especially popular science blogs. I love the groovy magazine Feed (currently on hiatus?), and I really like the wide variety of blogs at Science Blogs (my favorite is the Culture Wars, on the evolution debate). But what I don’t like is when some random blogger or random journalist picks up on a study, assigns it a tagline, attributes causality where there is only correlation to be found, and then uses it to justify random social factors:

ScienceDaily (perfectly fine source) writes about a new study:

The finding led to an unexpected discovery: Many brain areas communicating with the amygdala in men are engaged with and responding to the external environment. For example, the visual cortex is responsible for vision, while the striatum coordinates motor actions. Conversely, many regions connected to the left-hemisphere amygdala in women control aspects of the environment within the body. Both the insular cortex and the hypothalamus, for example, receive strong input from the sensors inside the body.

Sounds interesting, right? Well, sort of. As a non-human biologist, I’m not really sure what this amygdala stuff is all about. But no worries, Wired magazine’s Sex Drive Daily blog is perfectly clear:

It’s why men don’t know they have to eat, they just get cranky until a woman feeds them. It’s why women are generally more in tune with our health, while men are more aware of what kind of motorcycle just roared by.

But because my mind is on sex, I think this could also help account for the truth behind the cliche that men look at porn and women read romance novels.

Uh.. what?

Here’s my response:

This is a very interesting study, but I disagree with your commentary. The researchers found that at rest, men’s brains receive information mostly from the external environment, while women’s brains receive information mostly from the internal environment. That’s interesting, but your conclusions seem very exaggerated and extrapolated.

First, correlation isn’t causality. The researchers never said what this difference actually means in terms of what data people’s brains are processing, what effects this might have on the senses, and so forth. It might be very small.

Second, the effects that you’re attributing, especially romance novels vs. porn, are really socially determined. Not only are you generalizing about men = porn and women = erotica (which I’m not even sure is really accurate anymore), but you’re also assuming that erotica somehow correlates to internal body regulation while porn correlates to external data. While I understand the latter, I don’t understand the former.

Third, it’s very dangerous to take a single study and use it to explain away parts of society that are differently gendered. There are a huge host of factors contributing to gender patterns in society. That is why gender tends to play out differently in different cultures. “It is why it is because it’s natural” is not only usually not scientifically true, but leads us down a slippery slope to justifying social difference based on biological factors, which I think we can agree is a Bad Idea.

I’m not even going to touch your “men get cranky until a woman feeds them..” do they really? Do you assume your readers can’t feed themselves? My guy friends seem to be able to judge their own hunger perfectly well. That’s a fairly condescending view of the opposite sex.

As a social scientist myself, I think it’s fairly important that we look closely at scientific studies that are reported in the popular press and discuss them accurately. It’s all too easy for journalists to pick up a tag line and report it far and wide, while the actual study may have a small sample size, a flawed methodology, unrealistic generalizability or simply does not mean what you think it means.

Deanna Zandt at Alternet also wrote a nice response to this. So here’s my second action item: Don’t let bad interpretation of science stand. Write a comment, make it articulate, and make it clear what the problem is. I’m a big fan of science, and especially ethical, well-researched studies. But I’m not a big fan of them being used to justify gender stereotypes.

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