Have digital electronics become the new climate threat? 

By Robert Rattle

Last week news was abuzz with information about a new international lawsuit claiming big tech knowingly sourced cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where children are losing their lives as a result of irresponsible mining practices, fuelling war and conflict in the meantime.

While tracking source minerals to their end consumer product can be incredibly complex (I should know, my students try to gain bonus points each year to do just that!), it is a process that is very possible. Daniel Goleman wrote about it nearly a decade ago, and if big tech can track our citizen/consumer movements so accurately – and modify our behaviour to extract value from the new frontier of this free data resource – you’d think they could also track, at least as effectively, a few dozen source suppliers.  Indeed, claims of conflict-free and ethical minerals in electronic devices have been growing, almost admitting the practice to accurately track source minerals. The automotive industry too has announced their own responsible sourcing blockchain network.  In other words, nothing to see here folks, don’t worry about overconsumption; we can consume fairer, more responsibly, more efficiently.  And the party continues, or so we thought.

Hidden below this fleetingly thin veneer of child emancipation and responsible sourcing lies the bigger problem of overconsumption.  The prevailing global political economy amplified by the coveted data these electronic devices capture have nurtured a new and very dangerous form of consumer economy: surveillance capitalism.  It is a form of data economy that autonomously manipulates in real-time the behaviour of billions of consumers to expand markets and profits.  By advancing the new data frontier, the surveillant economy propels capitalism to new levels by weaponizing consumerism and intensifying the climate crisis, child exploitation and environmental damages, quite oblivious to the intrinsic acceleration of growth and inequality that technological determinism guards against.  Ironically, the least resource intensive and most abstract economic input – data – has now become perhaps the greatest weight on our physical planet and strongest force in our social relations.

If only big tech could solve consumerism and climate change as decisively as this new digital trajectory is contributing to them, our current and future generations of children would indeed be emancipated.  But for that, we would need a new political economy and global governance where growth and inequality, driven by profit, were not the default.