Picking The Wrong #ewaste "Underdogs" Part I

Happy 4th of July (from France).  Everyone here is talking about "underdogs" - though without a solid French translation. Different translations convey different assumptions.  Opprime is "oppressed", perdants is "losers". Sous-estime is "underestimated" (which works after the unexpected victory, in hindsight).

When Iceland beat England in the Euro Cup, and Wales beat Belgium, it was a surprise.  When Leicester City - facing elimination from the Premier League a year earlier - won the entire British Isles championship, the French sportscaster seemed to be missing a handle for the story.

Could 2016 be the Year of the Underdog?   One long-running theme of this Good Point: Ethical E-Waste Blog is our critical look at how #photojournalism can create, leverage, or ignore underdogs.  The audience of mankind is highly evolved to nurture the young and oppressed (what I call the Steve Pinker "nurture" instinct), which causes us to support scrappy underdogs vs. big corporations. Mass media is not an umpire - it's a player in the game.  Media controls who's perceived as worthy of nurture, and who's perceived as "imperialist" or "bully".  We nurture the oppressed, we root for the underdogs.  And when it's an obscure, technical, or foreign story, we depend on the media to tell us who the bullys and who the underdogs are.

Here's a kind of derivative take.  Mass media can create a "loser" who "wins" the underdog blessing. Being an underdog is a blessing of "moral currency". We see this in everyday society, people exaggerating their "rags to riches" history, the tourists' propensity to validate their "close encounter" with poverty.  And I need of course little excuse to repost the greatest comedic clip of all time, BBC's "The Four Yorkshiremen" sketch (pre-Monty Python's "Finally 1948" show).

So on July 4, Superpower USA reflects back on the scrappy 1776 Minutemen who overcame the King of England, the United Kingdom's rule.  Like Luke Skywalker and Hans Solo and Princess Leiah, a handful of colonies "against all odds" threw off the yoke of the 1700's greatest superpower, Great Britain.  Iceland, Bernie Sanders, Wales, Leicester City, and George Washington, the lovable underdogs.

The underdog card...
In the 19th century, Iceland was a colony of Denmark (which enforced a trade monopoly, keeping Iceland merchants from trading outside of DK).  Iceland had interesting parallels to the USA of the 18th century.  The Althing (native Iceland parliament, perhaps equivalent to the US Continental Congress) was forcefully disbanded, and Iceland didn't get real independence until after World War II. Iceland makes for a great Asterix and Obelix underdog...

(That's supposed to be clever - tying France's historical "Asterix" to Iceland, France's underdog foe in last night's Euro 2016 quarterfinal).

Alas or Hurray... In France we watched Les Bleus crush Iceland, 5-2, last night.  When I rooted for "Asterix", I had to explain myself with a google translator.

That "Down 4 - 0 at halftime" face (credit The Guardian)
Despite my family ties here in France, I found myself secretly rooting for the 300,000 or so residents of Iceland, each of whom appears to be first cousins with a starting player or client of the part time dentist who manages the team.  Preparing to explain my secret empathy for the vikings, I looked for - but couldn't find - a really good French translation for "underdog".

When an underdog wins, it's usually depicted as through their own merit - perseverance, sweat, some luck, a hidden talent.  It's despite the fact that no one nurtures them or delivers them aid.  The term connotes a surprise ending which Americans see as always a possibility, against the odds.

But the important point is that someone like me, who (unlike my kids) does not know the individual players and doesn't follow Euro "Soccer" much all year, winds up looking for someone to root for, and if the press says someone's an "underdog", that someone goes all soft and nurturing, without knowing what we are doing.

That's the "e-waste" story.

So back to the ethics of electronic device mining, refining, manufacture, assembly, sale, repair, reuse, recycling, and discard or "waste".  Waste is "losing" a resource, I'll accept that.  But does everyone and everything preceding "waste" (as a verb) bear obligation of "stewardship"?  And when two "previous stewards" interests collide, who was the underdog, and when?

Just as the United States wants to see itself as an underdog who, 240 years later, reminisces on our humble origins, so does the tech sector cling to it's underdog storylines.

Poor little Steve Jobs, making Apple computers in Cupertino, CA garage, as IBM backed Microsoft OS in the late 80s and early 90s.  Fanboys still treat Apple as an underdog, despite it's recent standing as largest corporation in the world (stock value).  And Bill Gates, a college drop out... Every tech sector's Wikipedia page seems to have the word "upstart" or "despites".

Mr Burns.pngYou know what?  The underdogs of today don't really feel the brotherly love. Just as Montgomery Burns (Simpsons) compares himself to Oskar Schindler "We both made shells for the Nazis, but mine worked, dammit", the richest corporation in the world still celebrates its humble beginnings through Apple fanbois.  (Note, after reading about passing of Elie Wiesel on Saturday, we visited the newly opened Rivesaltes Memorial Museum).

Today, the underdogs are different.  Louis Rossman's possible legal challenges (or intimidation? or polite inquiry from) Apple's law firm harkens back to the earliest of these blogs, about Vance Packard's 1960 seminal work "The Waste Makers" which tied junk accumulation and resource depletion to planned obsolescence.  Packard's Waste Makers led to the formation of Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), and Ralph Nader consumer protection laws, e.g. the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act of 1975, recently covered in this excellent article by Jason Koebler in Motherboard.

So who is the underdog?  Apple or Rossman?  The Avalanches, or the retired actors in their LP samples?  And do you answer this by who gets the journalist's vote, the sentimental headline - the proclaimed underdog?  Or is redistributing creditworthiness for nurture trickier than we thought?

Academics should be vetting these questions.  MIT Senseable City Lab students could be doing theses on what is or isn't happening to the used devices they tracked to 200 places on the planet.  There is a propaganda war going on behind #ewastegate.

But MIT dropped the bomb and rather than assess collateral damage, defers us to Basel Action Network.  If BAN says that only child-labor employing sham recyclers were injured, who is MIT to question it?  Ratti is ignoring the ethics of his chapter in #ewastegate because he has nothing to gain from the revelation that Big Shred, Fake Stat NGO, and Planned Obsolescence distributed the "e-waste" among their competitors and used racial profiling to dismiss the potential news that the LCD in Hong Kong was repaired and found in reuse, an environmental fate better -not worse- than at the USA shredder.

I'm hoping that by writing this, that other academics will review the report, look closely at the data and what the NGO partner claims it reveals, and to take serious aim at MIT's own proud claim to have discovered "previously unknown" information about trade in used goods. If I have delivered a 12 page critique showing that nothing was "unknown" about several of the markets, and it's MIT's burden of proof to defend that any of them were illegal, previously unknown, or newsworthy, then MIT shouldn't be allowed to get away with this.

I like MIT, I like the Senseable City Lab's work.  They are actually a victim, like Ira Glass was victim to Mike Daisy, or Peter Essick, UBC Vancouver, CBS 60 Minutes, BBC, NPR, The Atlantic, Washington Post, etc. were victims of Basel Action Network's false claims about e-waste percentages and the ratification of an obscure Basel "Ban Amendment".   But MIT of all people should know the damages of "passing the buck".  Each of the reputable journalists, photojournalists, e-Stewards and donors has a moral obligation to admit the Emperor Wears No Clothes.  (Hans Christian Anderson of Denmark reference there, 1837, in case you missed it).

There is an amazing journalism opportunity here, and no one has caught it.  #EWASTEGATE

"Market cannibalization" was a term I heard first from an HP presenter advocating OEM support for one of e-waste's first high-tech shredding operations, funded by Noranda.  She argued that even if the scrap value was less than resale value, that OEMs should subsidize it to protect future sales.  That was in the mid 1990s.  She later went to work for the shredding company, and now works for Apple.  This is not the "underdog".  The African Tech Sector, the Paul Rossmans, the Net Peripherals, the Chicas Bravas - the hand disassembly and repair sectors, the 3 billion people who got online in the past decade, despite incomes of $3k per year, THOSE are the underdogs.   And if MIT is dropping GPS trackers in the midst of those 3 billion people, and I'm tracking devices to their homes. MIT has a moral and ethical obligation to seek out the MIT OMBUDSMAN before I have to be impolite and contact him/her first.

Because where is all of this headed?

For USA Congressional Testimony, again.

I hope for, if not expect, a hand written thank you note and an invitation for a cup of coffee, not a door slammed on my foot.  But it is well under 90 minutes that have played.  And as I dribble and circle the goal, MIT may not be aware that I have many other players on the field to pass to.  Carlo Ratti's first response was to kick the ball out of bounds, or deflect it to the NGO "partner".

Corner Kick, in Part II.

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