Capitalism, Computers and the Class War on Your Desktop
by Bob Hughes

What would computers be like (or come to that, the world) if the "human factors" industry widened the scope of its concern to include all humans? This is a serious question! Virtuality, and the weightless, frictionless, post-industrial information economy notwithstanding, there is a real world out there, and capitalism is trashing it - with our computers.

The machine on which I write this was massively subsidised by the sweat, tears, taxes and poisoned aquifers of the people of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and China. It was assembled in Taiwan's notorious Hsinchu "science park", into which $60 billion of public money has been pumped, and from which perhaps 40,000 tons of toxic water is pumped into local waterways every single day[1]. Its silicon chips have consumed 700 times their own weight in water, hydrocarbons, toxic gases and solvents[2]. Its hard disk was made in a factory in Thailand, where women have actually dropped dead at their work benches from lead poisoning[3]. It's a laptop, so at least its display contains no lead (5-8 lbs in a typical CRT); instead, it contains about 30mg of mercury[4]: either a lethal dose, or several times the lethal dose, depending on how you ingest it[5]. It has perhaps 30 capacitors containing tantalum[6]: very likely part of the spoils of Congo's civil war, which has killed around 4 million people[7]. The price of tantalum, and almost everything else in a computer, varies wildly; legitimate production is expensive and inflexible; so there will always be a role in the supply-chain for discreet, ever-flexible militias. The power-supply was assembled for next to nothing by some of the millions of young men and women who leave the land in China every year, as part of "economic restructuring"[8]..

None of these workers has recourse to a trade union or state welfare. They can be, and are, made to work long hours in sweatshops and sacked as soon as the market dips or their performance flags. "Grandma, where are your glasses?" is the running joke among worn-out 25 and 26 year-old women chip-assemblers in Hong Kong[9]. In Malaysia, where my computer's RAM chips were made, "local law prohibits meetings of more than five people, in effect making any type of organizing drive impossible"[10].

Having cost people their health, eyesight and civil liberties, this computer is scheduled to become trash[11]. Can you imagine it! An item that cost more than my parents paid for my sister's beautiful Broadwood piano, trashed after a mere 2-3 years (the average now, apparently![12]) There is almost nothing in it that can be repaired, and it will be almost impossible to upgrade it to whatever specification comes next. There is no way of attaching older peripherals so they are trash, too. And almost none of it can be recycled. Incredible! It was made with the cheapest labour on the planet, in subsidised factories, yet the manufacturers still could not afford the little touches, like screws and sockets instead of glue, that would permit repair or upgrade. So when I throw it away (as I am condemned eventually to do) newly-poor people in Guangdong, China, or the suburbs of New Delhi will dispose of its carcinogenic innards for $1.50 a day with their bare hands, and their neighbours and children will take care of any pollution that ensues.

And that is just for starters: PCs are merely a tenth, or less, of all computing devices. The rest are embedded in the machinery around us - making them highly attractive, but also protecting them totally from the would-be upgrader or repairer: hi-fis, washing machines, cookers and microwaves, cameras. In this way, whole sectors of small-scale, skilled repair and service industries are quietly eliminated from the economic landscape. 20% of the cost of a luxury car is now in the electronics[13], and they serve the manufacturer far better than they do the car's owner. "The Volvo S70 has not one, but two CAN buses running through it, connecting the microprocessors in the mirrors with those in the doors with those in the transmission. The mirrors talk to the transmission so that they can tilt down and inwards when you put the car in reverse. The radio talks with the antilock brakes so that the volume can go up and down with road speed (the ABS has the most accurate speed information)".[14] These features make great marketing, but if and when they fail, the local mechanic cannot fix them, still less the owner. They must be replaced entirely with expensive new components, from Volvo: there is not even the option of a "generic part". Volvo, like all corporate players, has seized the entire food chain (and has now, of course, been assimilated into Ford's food chain.) This is the flip-side of "pervasive computing" that somehow isn't mentioned in conference papers. Why not?

How did we come to this? Computers are humanity's crowning achievement! Every computer in the world is a homage to and an embodiment of the work of an unbroken line of humanity's most ingenious workers, from the overwhelmingly unacknowledged engineers and programmers behind today's systems, to the men and women of the Turing/von Neumann generation, all the way back to Mohamed ibn Musa Al Kh'warizm in 9th-century Baghdad, whose name is honoured every time an "algorithm" is called. Using the computer one truly "stands on the shoulders of giants", and it should feel like that!

Well, you might say, that's progress; no pain no gain. You might borrow an irrationale from Madeleine Albright: a little devastation on the other side of the world is "a price worth paying". Even if you don't, you may still feel that, unfortunately, this is how it has to be. You may not like capitalism, you may hate the rat race, the brand-names and all the rest of it. But you feel you have to concede this much: capitalism has given us the computer. Capitalism alone can drive development, create the rewards that allow the investment that nourishes the creativity that put this computer, which embodies so many millions of person-hours of creative thinking, into my briefcase. Banish capitalism, and you banish the computer too, it seems.

But is that really the case? Well, almost nothing that makes a computer work comes from capitalism. On the contrary, pioneers like Babbage grew old and died coaxing capitalism to take an interest in their work. The great work of realising the electronic computer was and still is done overwhelmingly at public expense or from private passion, by people who were simply excited by the idea, stimulated by real-world problems, who felt nobly rewarded by an adequate salary or simply the appreciation of their peers. One could indeed argue that capitalism's main contribution to the computer has been to arrest its development for well over a century, and then to cripple it.

Capitalism has caused a certain kind of computer, which nobody actually asked for, to proliferate at a speed nobody really wants.

To understand what has happened to computers, we may ask why capitalism ever took to the computer at all. The computer, which is originally all about beautiful parsimony and efficiency, has been turned into a humourless device for extracting profit from people; systematically wasting their effort, ideas, hopes; turning any luxury it allows us into a costly, burdensome necessity; and, finally, erasing all evidence that human beings were ever involved. It has been recruited into capitalism's historic mission to annihilate competition and generate needs, which so dominate our lives it is almost impossible even to notice that there is a real world out there.

Capitalism always claims that it is wonderful at giving us what we want but its real skill, it seems to me, is preventing us even wondering about what we might want. Let's get wondering!

Bob Hughes is a writer, teacher, computer nerd, and a socialist. He is the author of Dust or Magic (about how people do "good stuff with computers" - Addison-Wesley 2000). He started his working life as a calligrapher and primary-school teacher in Liverpool in the early 1970s, then worked in advertising as a copywriter till discovering computers and hypermedia in 1987. He now teaches part-time on the MA in Electronic Media at Oxford Brookes University, where he has established a new, annual conference for computer workers and well-wishers entitled Dust or Magic: work and workmanship in cyberia. At other times he campaigns against the scapegoating of migrants and asylum seekers, does backyard experiments with .css, and pursues research for possible future books for which the above article is by way of hors d'oeuvre).