Tuesday, December 21, 2004

mobile phones are miniature SUVs

Sorry, but today I find myself once more parting company with the mainstream media in thinking there's more important things to discuss than David Blunkett's dick. Again, it's pipped at the post by thoughts of Africa.

The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo means it's been impossible for any large environmental projects to function. As the precious coltan and other minerals lie directly underneath pristine tropical rainforest, the ecological assault has been enormous.

The war in DRC is now creating a competition to see which will be the first great ape we drive to extinction. The Eastern Lowland Gorilla, of whom there are only about 5,000 left, seemed to be the most likely. Its habitiat is being mined, and the apes themselves killed for meat by the miners. But now it seems like the bonobo may well go soon too.

Evolutionarily speaking, it seems like there was one species of ape that got separated by the massive Congo river. Those on one side became chimps, those on the other bonobos. The two species are our closest animal relatives.

The bonobo - also known as the pygmy chimpanzee even though it's the same size as the other chimp - looks like a chimp but a bit more human (smaller ears, longer legs), and the social structure is amazing. In contrast to chimps' aggression, bonobo society is not male dominated nor violent, but characterised by massive amounts of sexual activity that keeps them all very chilled out.

A new survey puts the bonobo population at about 10,000 - a fifth of what had been guessed, and on the brink of unsustainably small.

Callum Rankine, the UK senior international species officer for the WWF who supported the new study, thinks it might all turn out OK. 'The war has had terrible consequences for the people and wildlife of the Congo basin, but with Congo now trying to rebuild socially and economically, the opportunity is there'.

It's not clear what rebuilding he means. His quote was reported in The Guardian on 9th December. That's the same day that Rwandan-backed militias moved in to fight with DRC army troops near the town of Goma, marking a resurgence of the war.

This war is horrific not only in its scale and intensity but also in the specific atrocities committed some of which I actually cannot bear to repeat to people because of how disturbing they are. It continues because we who have the power to stop it choose not to, instead opting to fund it by buying the minerals it produces.

The war is about far more than the minerals. But the minerals escalate and intensify it, and they are the sole reason for the demolition of astonishing and irreplacable species and ecosystems in tropical Africa.

Whilst we have widespread disgust for SUVs (top marks to the people producing bumper stickers saying 'ASK ME ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING' and guerilla-sticking them), we should be having an equally popular revulsion for consumer electronics.

1 comment:

captain davros said...

Very pertinent post. I work in publishing and swapped jobs this year, and my girlfriend asked me where I thought the whole web thing was heading. I said I thought it was somewhere along the lines of a new device that was part phone and part PDA and could store and download all of your digital media, and that the savvy publishers would get working on standards to start propagating their current catalogue out to these new generation devices.

I went on to theorise how it would be an exiting and shiny handheld device, that'd have a great, easy to read screen and some remarkable futuristic input interface, and it would couple together existing gadgets and hobbies to allow you to do things we don't at the moment even consider to be sensible (anyone reckon on your mobile phone having a camera 5 years ago?).

I summed up by saying that it'll be hard to figure out where this will come from, as so many gadgets come and go and I can't predict what trends will pop up as popular in order to drive the design and market for this, but that I did also know that it'd also depend on which poor third world nation is unfortunate enough to be harbouring the stuff we'd make the batteries from. As we get told we need more and more bits on our dinky devices, whether they're bigger hard drives for more MP3s, or colour screens, or video cameras, or GPS systems or whatever else we can't even fathom out now, the winners will be the ones who look smallest and sexiest and whose batteries last longest. That means more digging and blasting in countries we don't want to know about to make smaller, longerlife batteries that in the end, to add insult to injury, we won't even be able to throw away safely because the stuff they're full of isn't fit to be around us. Suddenly it all seems a whole lot less sexy and exciting and makes you realise just how impossibly infected with dirty deeds you can become by living along with "the norm" in the West.

The irony is that I have always felt a bit cheated growing up in the 70's, when the year 2005 was a promised future full of moon bases and jet packs and meals in pills. The mobile phone is one of the only things I can think of that's lived up to that promise, and yet what's really missing from it is the other stuff, like being able to power it by just adding a thimble full of sea water, or charging it in the sun, or plugging in an orange or something. I haven't the slightest doubt that if we could power stuff from far out clean and friendly means we'd have seen a lot more of it by now, but it does upset me that the relentless onslaught of the mini-this and the ultra-sleek-whatsit has to be driven by batteries that are created out of such blindingly obvious disruption.

Whilst we're waiting for the newer, friendlier sources of energy to come along (and I hope they come along) there are ways of getting messages about the real cost of these things out there, just like the SUV bumper sticker. There are things we'll probably never see but which would be great, like embossing a likeness of the lowland gorilla onto consumer device batteries to instigate some reflective thinking, and there are real-life-you-could-do-it-now possibilities like bluetooth spam that throws out food-for-thought statistics into the latest and greatest phones, or MP3s that are sent out into file sharing networks which are prefixed with just what your mp3 player is made of and where all the bits come from.

But I worry that we'll never get folks to give up their gadgets without an alternative, and for every small handheld thingy that connects us and makes our lives exciting and easier, there are others that isolate us without knowing it, driving us towards dependency on shiny toys (5 years ago, along with not even thinking about the camera phone, I used to cycle, drive and walk all over the place without a mobile phone and could meet up with friends in cities I'd never been to without txting them in advance - now I'm such a wuss I'll hardly leave the house without one in case I get stranded somehow). And the stupidest thing of all is that right now I can't even think what the alternative might be.