Access to clothes washing for the masses must have freed women for the workforce, or for teaching their children to read at an earlier age. Where I lived in Africa, washing my own clothes or paying someone to wash them was a major decision every week. I did both, and when I washed them myself I felt proud. But the man, John, who came to my house to beg to wash them needed the money and was willing to iron and sew and fold every cuff, for he knew that washing the clothes of the only white man in Ngaoundal would lead to other referrals and other clothes washing jobs for others. In the end I weighed the time it took me to wash my clothes, the time I saved, and the damage of the appearance of looking colonial by letting a black man wash my clothing for me. In the end, I washed my own underwear, but let John keep the job.
I'm tempted to write quite a bit more about John and the clothes washing, and the reflections I had in the Peace Corps which shaped my philosophy and business practices today. John was one of the first people to die within a year of my leaving Cameroon. It seemed all the first letters bore bad news. Ambiance, the jolly military father of three of my favorite students, fell dead of a heart attack in his early 40s. Suzanne Ateh, my "African Mommy" who fed me one meal a day - so full I did not eat a second - died before I could plan how I'd continue my relationship with her, the mightiest of the anglophone women. And John had started to get skinny and to have spots form on his face before I left... he was the first one to die. When he started washing my clothes, he was a dapper image of a butler, right out of a movie. When I left, he was worried he would lose the weekly income, but there was a graver and more immediate worry in his eyes. I knew something was wrong, and John knew. At the time, in the 1980s, many people would have questioned letting a man who was dying of AIDS wash their clothes by hand two or three times a week, beating the clothes in suds made hot by the sun, with a polished stone, which beat steadily but never hit a button or a finger.
The connection here is not only to the washing machine as a commodity, the laundromat as the internet cafe, but also to the reflection. One of the longest running "top emailed stories" at the New York Times is "Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price", which describes studies into the effects on the brain of the absence of boredom. Constantly stimulated minds, with constant access to blackberries, palms, androids and iphones, are developing thinking patterns which are different. A generation gap may be brewing between people like me who spent 30 months in Africa without TV and only spotty BBC shortwave radio when electricity was available. Many of the old symptoms of the generation gaps are "papered over" (so to speak) as I show my kids looney tunes and Led Zepplin songs on youtube. We may be preparing a generation of people who will be miserable in jobs that require routine, and incapable of jobs which require reflection, but able to do chemistry and architecture on a phone app which took our fathers and mothers months at the drafting board.
And that reference to apps is what makes this "commodity" - the internet capable computer or cell phone - different from a clothes washer. The internet cafe we set up in Fronteras Mexico is a time machine, it's a portal, it's a place to the village kids that would have looked exotic in a 1970s episode of Dr. Who. The computer programs and internet become more sophisticated every week. As described in the NYTimes article "smarter than you think", translation advances are close to making language skills optional. The article "Speech Recognition's Early Days" describes rapidly advancing voice recognition which may make keyboards obsolete. Ironically, I might begin to have more in common with the poor in Africa whose brains develop with boredom and whose grandfathers carved wood and grew subsistence crops, like my own grandfather.
The links made between internet and education are in some way superficial. Porn searches still dominate internet traffic. But that by itself says that the technology of communication and information is different from just a commodity. It's a way to float.
As life preservers advance and become better, should we shred the old ones while people splash about and try not to drown? If John was alive today, and there was an internet cafe in Ngaoundal, he would at least have had a chance to know what the AIDS virus was, to search about it, and find out what it was doing to him. And he may have learned how not to infect someone else. For all I knew then, the AIDS virus might have travelled in the soap bubbles through my clothes. And for all I know now, John may have infected more people without intending to. Someone else in Africa might be writing a blog today or meeting me through a search of the term "Ngaoundal".
The world is connecting. We need to get recycling into the developing world and we need to do that right now. We need to set up R2 programs and places like Retroworks de Mexico immediately, in many countries, and we cannot wait. If those operations are more profitable by importing gently used equipment from rich countries, that will allow them to more quickly finance the recycling of scavenged material in their own home nations, which is most of the material at the dump in Africa and Asia.
Enough nonsense and "ewaste recycling guilt". Enough e-waste poster children posed in a fake staged tap of a copper yoke from a TV with a screwdriver (I have repeatedly publicly accused BAN.org of staging that shot, it is ludicrous, and do not have an answer). Let's do this now and let's do this right. If you have someone better than me to do it, bring them on, but stop with the hand-wringing and red scare tactics. I am not denying nor apologizing for the terribly polluting aqua regia practice which is the centerpiece of the poisonous activities filmed in Guiyu, China. But stopping men from getting gold in China is harder than stopping crackheads from getting a fix.
Gold is really at the center of the bad activities, and trying to reform the scavenging for gold has impacted repair and refurbishing activity, which has been the stepping stone for cultures leaving raw material economies behind. I began re-reading Jack London's "The Call of the Wild" this morning. It's available online in the same serialized version that was published in the Saturday Evening Post. The first paragraph is below. The sad thing is that in the developing world, where jobs are so scarce, the vagueness of the reference to Buck's identity (spoken of as if a man, but your realize he is a husky dog), that a boy in Ghana with the name Buck could fit right in. The question is what kind of working conditions he will find.
Buck did not read the newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego. Because men, groping in the Arctic darkness, had found a yellow metal, and because steamship and transportation companies were booming the find, thousands of men were rushing into the Northland. These men wanted dogs, and the dogs they wanted were heavy dogs, with strong muscles by which to toil, and furry coats to protect them from the frost.