Cognitive Risk: Ewaste Cell Phone Cancer

Reading about which makes and models of cell phones may "correlate" to risk of brain cancer (on Slashdot).

I speak on my cell phone while warming coffee in a microwave oven.  This is exposing me to two technologies.  I wish to assume the microwave oven is not cooking me, and to assume the cell phone is not giving me cancer.  I'll never be around long enough to learn whether the two in combination have some effect, or whether either, in a small dose, is beneficial.  Most things in life are actually beneficial in small doses but harmful in large (red wine, iron, water, solar radiation).   There may be a "correct dose" of cell phone use which, in combination with microwave oven use, actually reduces brain cancer...

Too late - my cognitive risk assessment lobe has been tripped.

It's part of the human industrial cycle...  Use of the word "cancer" in conjunction with any common household appliance (cell phone, microwave, "e-waste", etc) will generate headlines and readership, due to human cognitive bias which equates change (technology) with risk.

"Cognitive bias is a general term that is used to describe many observer effects in the human mind, some of which can lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, or illogical interpretation." [wikipedia]

How does the news of this perceived risk spread?  Higher news readership is associated with advertising stimulus, which equates positively to editorial story emphasis.  i.e., Panic sells.  Advertising will favor new technology devices, increases sales, supplying tomorrow's cognitive risk.  (This stimulus correlates positively with scientific study funding at WHO).

For a manufacturer, an ideal scenario is to manufacture a device, such as a child safety seat, which is a) mandated, and b) recalled (banning sales in the secondary market), in a proportion which maximizes stockholder value, but only outside the manufacturer warranty cycle.  So "older cell phones" can be safely identified as a risk, especially in proximity to older microwave ovens, (but not a proven risk, or a class action lawsuit).

For an environmental activist, the goal in manufacturing stuff is to get more sustainable consumption of world resources (rain forests, coral reefs, species diversity).  But the trick is to get it just right.  If we cause the manufacturer to use tin instead of lead, for example, we do more harm than good.  If we cause greater production and product turnover, we also fail.  But the worst is when we are driven by egos and NGO funding cycles.  What I worry about are Product Stewardship laws which are applied by people who want to win for the sake of winning, after trying so hard to get something passed, that any passage is felt internally to be a victory.  MonkeyWrench Gangs using laws instead of spiking trees...

For manufacturers, it really doesn't matter what you ban and why, as long as it results in a predictable turnover of old devices within markets which can afford new devices.  Sustainability is not a factor in short term investment (Wall Street) cycles.

Together, we sell disproportionate fear of "wrong car seat".   America has created a system of zero reuse for car seats based on liability ideas.   What about exporting used car seats?  I think most people (or liberals) in the USA would oppose that, for the same reason we oppose use of DDT (which the USA used to eradicate malaria in the past century) in Sudan and Ethiopia.  Millions of children are dying of malaria.  Why worry about what can kill my child seven years from now, when there are so many things that may kill her today?

We impose our cognitive bias onto our appliance, and all the guilt from words like "cancer" and "used" and "recalled" and "dangerous" and "obsolete" make us feel safer shredding the car seats, without a study of how many African children will die in automobile accidents, or what the effects of finely shredded plastic.  ( Steve Levitt (Freakonomics) speaks about the economy of car seats, seat belts, and child safety in this TED video [2005]*)

Nobody tries to take older car seats away from middle class people in Nigeria, because they are unlikely  to buy a brand new one.   But if we can stop sales of used car seats to Nigerians, our western industry benefits.  Our corporations more from a single sale of new car seat than from 10 sales of used car seats... so the economic incentive - for Graco or other corporations - is to leave nine people with no car seat in order to preserve the sale of the single car seat.  This is the successful application of western "cognitive bias" to secondary (parallel) markets, part of what I call planned obsolescence in hindsight.  For the USA as a whole, however, we make more money selling ten used car seats to ten Nigerians... the retained value of a car seat is worth more than the plastic.  This is the math of the "secondary market", and we have "gray market" laws encroaching on resale of our property, in the guise of concern over the safety of the single Nigerian child whose parents can afford a new car seat.

Manufacturers prefer simple rules that change predictably.  But they cannot just have everyone happy with appliances they purchased years ago, that would reduce new purchases and result in stagnation and decreased R and D.   It's one thing to trigger cognitive dissonance in the sale of a new item - a new microwave or a flat screen TV.  I preferred to put my own kids into a brand new car seat... because I could afford one without making a difficult choice, like whether to buy books, or fuel to boil water.

What the OEMs should realize is that transfer of the used technology to a parallel market (e.g. used car seats to Nigeria) will result in new market development, through greater acceptance and use of car seats as the norm, which will result in more purchases of car seats by the upper class, and more sales.

As far as how we broadcast and obsess over the danger of the cell phone (back to Slashdot article)... I recall the South Park episode "Cartoon Wars", where episodes of Family Guy are written by manatees with random "Idea Balls".    Manatees can also pair different new technological devices with the word "cancer" to generate headlines, generating cognitive bias, generating panic, generating readership...

Keywords:  cancer, cell phone, car seat, safety.  You can leverage a lot of purchasing over a few well kindled fears.

We liberals may distrust the free market, but we need to see how our own laws can become a part of that market.  I am not pessimistic, I'm an optimist, but I believe that the same "precautionary principle" applied to new products should apply to new "green" or "safety" ideas applied to the free market.  What we want is alter-globalization, a way of trading which stresses communication and visits and person-to-person contact between Africans and Asians and Latinos and Gringos.

I have found that doing this produces unintended positive consequences.  I find that the same things that make my friend's family in Egypt happy are things that make my family happy, and that those things don't have much to do with products advertised for newer and newer "Stuff".

What I like best is when my family is smiling and happy.   I know that they are unhappy if someone is sick or dying of cancer, and the idea of that makes me afraid (dislike).  But I also know that getting something brand new whenever we want is part of the heightened expectation - gratification game which is consuming the earth.  I want  my family to be happy with what they have, to appreciate new things but to not be unhappy without them.  I am therefore skeptical of this whole western consumption thing.  It makes me enormously happy if I can die thinking there will still be whales in the ocean for my grandchildren to be awed by.  I don't have to "own" those whales (or brag that I tasted one before they were extinct).  And part of what makes me confident in my parenting is my experience living in Africa with people who were able to laugh and be happy - terribly happy - with what they had, and with a feeling that things were getting better.

I want the planet to have enough resources left to make safe car seats for great-great-great-great grandchildren whom I will never meet.  Sometimes, that may mean making do with something that isn't as new and improved, even if that something involves a teeny bit more risk.  And if ten African children can be a little bit safe, vs. a single African child being a bit more safe at 9 others expense, I think we may have a case not to shred the car seats  quite as quickly.

My family is happy when they feel Papa (me) has a business which helps people and does the right thing and changes the world.  My teenage twins split (share) the cell phone, my youngest isn't assuming he's going to get one.  The only "games" we have in the house is a 15 year old Nintendo which we just hooked up two weeks ago for the first time.   We don't need "stuff".   I agree with Annie about a lot of the criticism of stuff, but playing on environmentalists cognitive bias is not going to make people happier and isn't going to make the world better in the same way that fair trade recycling can do.

* Levitt (Freakonomics) is actually speaking just about use of car seats for kids over the age of 2.  I first noticed the same thing - lack of data supporting the billion-dollar change mandates - associated with recalls (whether a new car seat is safer than the one it replaced).


Ormond Otvos said...

You're on to something here. I expect it won't get far, but I'll spread it around a bit.

Anonymous said...

"Manufacturers prefer simple rules.." par. 11... This would describe a consensus of competing manufacturers. In a small nation with few manufacturers (or a very very large one with state-owned manufacturers), the consensus may specifically exclude other manufacturers.

The article is somewhat profound, btw