The High Cost of Gadgetry

Still from “Death by Design.”

Two new documentaries will make you look differently at your electronic gadgets, especially the cool iPhone or other products from Apple whose logo might be changed to a skull-and-crossbones after seeing “Death by Design” and “Complicit”. They examine the damage done to both the workers who produce them and the environment, especially in China, as well as raise important questions about the meaning of “progress”. If being able to use an iPhone to pay for your Starbucks coffee comes at the expense of a leukemia epidemic for Foxconn workers and making 60 percent of China’s groundwater unsuitable for drinking, then the whole question of progress has to be thought through.

Death by Design” is now available on VOD and distributed by Bullfrog Films, America’s leading distributor of politically relevant films. Directed by veteran PBS Frontline filmmaker Sue Williams, it reviews the environmental impact of computers and other products that fall within the rubric of the Information Age.

When you think of the impact of toxic waste on drinking water, the first thing that comes to mind is fracking. After seeing “Death by Design”, you will learn that manufacturing circuit boards, a process we associate with workers in white suits operating in sterile, laboratory-like environments, is just as much of a threat to our health. Although 90 percent of manufacturing takes place in far-off China nowadays, it arose first in IBM’s upstate New York headquarters and then Silicon Valley. This is where high-technology cancer clusters and other serious illnesses first cropped up.

Endicott, N.Y. was the birthplace of IBM. For most of the time when mainframes were being built there, the corporation used to dump industrial solvents used for cleaning hardware into local drains. The solvents seeped from leaky pipes into the ground with disastrous consequences for people living above. As happens so frequently with cancer clusters, the corporation denies responsibility since finding a smoking gun is almost impossible given medical science’s inability now and in the future to determine the exact sequence of events that lead to a mutant cell. IBM eventually took responsibility for the cleanup and compensation to the victims but only after the damage had already been done.

Endicott was a blue-collar town that became impoverished after IBM moved production to Armonk. Is there any place we’d associate less with blue collars than Silicon Valley? “Death by Design” reveals that the men and women who live in $2 million homes were not spared as well. Until it became the software capital of the USA, Silicon Valley produced hardware just like Endicott and with the same disastrous results. In the 1980s, most desktop computers were being produced there except for Dell. Like IBM in Endicott, the manufacturers left behind a gigantic plume of carcinogenic chemicals. And just like in Endicott, IBM brought along its bad profit-maximizing habits to San Jose where Big Blue and Fairchild Electronics constituted the largest companies in the area. They built storage tanks for their waste products but as tends to happen with powerful solvents, they broke through the walls of the containers and leaked into the groundwater. In Silicon Valley, residents blamed the giants for an epidemic of birth defects but as is the case with cancer, determining an exact cause-and-effect is difficult to prove especially when you are dealing with companies that have a battery of high-powered lawyers with Harvard degrees.

Marxist economist David Harvey was responsible for a major theoretical breakthrough that helps us understand how capitalism has such a knack for survival. When contradictions begin to mount in a country like the USA, where people feel entitled to clean air and water, the system can displace its ills geographically especially to places like China that has turned into the toxic waste capital of the world.

“Death by Design” introduces us to a nation that has made a devil’s bargain with its population. In exchange for a rising standard of living, it asks its wage slaves to endure the same carcinogens that the people of Endicott and Silicon Valley would not put up with. But unlike the American toxic sites, the Chinese suffer double jeopardy. Not only do they have to put up with solvents leeching into their rivers and lakes, they suffer deadly air pollution that is the result of the unregulated elimination of the smart phones, tablets and laptops that you replace so frequently as the consequence of planned obsolescence. Apple is particularly cagey about the way it forces “great” new versions of the iPhone on you. It uses non-standard screws on the casing so unless you have a special screwdriver, you are practically forced to buy a new model, which Apple deviously designed to have a life-span about the same as the battery.

China is now the “e-waste” capital of the world. While some of the discarded electronics sent to China is recycled, much of it goes up in smoke. Since this is China, there are no regulations about incineration procedures. The film shows men and women tossing circuit boards into a bonfire without any regard to what the ashes might do to them or people living nearby—or for that matter the rest of the planet Earth. Since the metals, including lead, that go into an electronic device cannot be destroyed (they are elements, after all), all you can do is transform them into tiny air-born particulates that can not only seep into China’s waters but ascend into the sky and travel across the Pacific floating in a cloud. The film shows a California biologist in a plane filled with electronic instruments that can determine the make-up of a cumulus cloud. She tells us that the clouds amount to fluffy, picturesque bundles of carcinogens.

To some extent, my interest in cancer has much to do with working as a database administrator at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in the mid-1980s. Seeing 5-year old kids walking around with a chemotherapy bottle attached to their arm really has a way of concentrating your mind. In the half-dozen or so books I have read about the science of cancer over the years, I was left with the conclusion that making a direct connection between the environment and the disease is not easy. That is why, for example, it took over a decade for the court case against IBM in Endicott to be decided in favor of the victims.

However, it is much easier to connect the dots when it comes to on-the-job casualties. The most obvious cases are the young chimney sweeps in London who came down with testicular cancer in the Victorian era or the mostly women workers who got cancer after applying radium to luminous watch dials in the early 20th century.

It is also an open-and-shut case when it comes to the Chinese workers at Foxconn and other subcontractors to Apple who came down with leukemia after using solvents such as benzene and n-hexane to clean the glass covers of iPhones.

“Complicit”, which will be seen on June 12th and June 17th as part of the annual Human Rights Festival in New York (details are here), is focused on these victims that after contracting leukemia decided to become activists determined to make Foxconn, Apple and other multinationals pay for their abuses and change the way they produce the consumer goods that are so seductive to consumers worldwide. Since wages constitute about one percent of an iPhone’s cost, you’d think that this would be no big deal—that is until you run into someone like Terry Gou, the CEO of Foxconn.

With ample support from the ruling Communist Party, Gou denounces protesters gathered in front of his plant, including those who have been enduring lengthy stays in the hospital for leukemia treatments, relying on the cops to spirit away the riffraff.

Most of the workers who end up working at Foxconn and other high-technology subcontractors are migrant workers from China’s impoverished farmlands. While they were willing to work at a breakneck pace up to seven days a week for minimal wages (to the point that some were driven to suicide), they had not bargained on coming down with leukemia when they were only in their early 20s.

Benzene had long ago been banned in American factories but that did not get in Terry Gou’s way. To make a case against him, labor activists began to subpoena medical records from the plant, photograph chemical storage in the plants, and use picket lines to put pressure on the company.

The labor activists profiled in “Complicit” had no idea what risks they were taking when they were trained to use an unnamed solvent to clean a product. Long Li, the 18-year-old daughter of peasant farmers from Guizhou who was disfigured from a kerosene lamp accident when very young, was excited when she first came to Guangdong province, where most of China’s electronic goods are made. The tall buildings, the sense of independence, and the money she earned at work that could help keep her parents fed and clothed, made her feel elated.

She was told by her boss to dip her rubber-gloved right index finger into a solvent and then rub each cell phone screen for 10 to 20 seconds on the assembly line. She was issued a paper mask, but rarely used it because they were too hot. Long worked from 8 am until 11 pm, and as late as 4 am in the busy season. Unlike those exposed to benzene, Long Li worked with n-hexane that produced neurological damage rather than leukemia. While it might not have killed her, it disabled her and made it impossible for her to continue working to help out her parents.

At some point, she became an activist working with Yi Yeting, a former employee at CIMC, the shipping container company that delivers the toxic devices and other benzene laced products around the world. Despite being ill with leukemia, he devoted every hour to exposing China’s cruel, profit-driven manufacturers. Like Long Li, Yi came from a poverty-stricken rural village. He was only 24 when he was diagnosed with leukemia after working at CIMC for two years. Despite the tendency of the illness to rob people of their energy, Yi became a tireless defender of workers’ rights.

All of the subjects in “Complicit” and their families are the people who the Chinese revolution was made for. Like the peasants who sacrificed their lives fighting to liberate China from the KMT and the landlords they served, they are now on the front lines of a new battle to transform China into the world’s leading capitalist power.

For some on the left, the emergence of the BRICS and China’s ability to confront Western hegemony has been viewed as a major anti-imperialist advance. Furthermore, Xi Jinping has received accolades for supposedly returning to Maoist principles. For example, Workers World Party leader Fred Goldstein wrote an article titled “Behind Xi Jinping’s call for a return to Marxism” that took note of a trip Xi made to Guangdong Province not long after becoming the head of state. There he spoke to fellow Communists about the dangers of a Gorbachev-type development in China. Goldstein reported that “He spoke in dire terms about how the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was overthrown and socialism completely destroyed. The long-term fate of the party is undoubtedly a deep concern of Xi and his collaborators.”

Xi’s visit to Guangdong province is highly symbolic. This is the center of Chinese manufacturing that took off after Deng Xiaoping’s “liberalization” of the Chinese economy. For Goldstein and others who think like him, China has a dual character. It is both capitalist and socialist, perhaps bearing similarities to the NEP in the Soviet Union. Wasn’t it possible that the opening up of Guangdong to foreign investment was necessary for China to accumulate the capital that would allow for domestic development? But Goldstein worries that unlike the Soviet Union, China has gone far too long putting up with a capitalist sector. He doubts that Xi is capable of resolving the contradiction in favor of socialism but at least credits him with putting the brakes on the worst elements of the capitalist sector who are likely the sort that allowed benzene and n-hexane to be used in their factories—at least one hopes so.

There is an assumption underlying the thinking of people like Fred Goldstein that must be addressed. Is socialism only about providing the necessities of life? Under Mao Zedong, there was an “iron rice bowl” that referred to a guaranteed lifetime job and benefits. Much of that has been whittled away during the post-Mao period but it is still worth asking if that was what Karl Marx had in mind when he wrote about the need for socialism.

When I began working as a programmer at Met Life in 1968, they used to call the insurance company “Ma Met”. Like “Ma Bell”, it was a place that provided lifetime job security and great benefits. Lunch was free and the health plan would not be regarded as a “Cadillac” plan today. It would be seen as a “Rolls Royce” plan.

My first manager once told me that as long as I didn’t keep a bottle of whiskey in my desk, I’d never have to worry about losing my job. Indeed, after the FBI sent an anonymous postcard to my workplace naming me as a commie, the top boss of my division called me into his office to tell me that if I ever got such a postcard in the future, he’d make sure that the person who sent it would be fired. If he only knew that J. Edgar Hoover authorized the postcard as part of Cointelpro, he might not have made such a promise since Hoover’s job security was even greater than mine.

Was this socialism? This is not such a far-fetched question since so much of the left today believes that electing Bernie Sanders would have moved us closer to “socialism”, which really boiled down to turning back the clock to the 1950s when American industry was still operating within a New Deal context.

I have a rather old-fashioned, if not quaint, idea of what socialism amounts to. It is a system that not only abolishes private property; it also prevents bureaucrats from exercising power over our daily lives. Unless you have the right to speak your mind and fight for your beliefs without fear of being sent to jail like the worker-activists suffering from leukemia in “Complicit”, then find some other word to describe the system.

Despite being accused of having helped to turn Marxism into a secular religion, I continue to regard Frederick Engels as second to none—including Marx—in articulating the total freedom possible under a classless society. For Engels, the provision of food, housing and medical care is not the same thing as socialism. Instead, as he pointed out in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, it is the total transformation of society that will allow us to enjoy true freedom for the first time in human history:

The socialized appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in the crises. Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today, and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialized production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.