Move along now. Nothing to see here.


Censorship (Photo credit: IsaacMao)

I love the freedom of the Internet. The idea that any kind of knowledge, any kind of product or service is just a click away still astounds me.

Children born today will find it very difficult to believe that it was ever any different. Unfortunately, not everyone enjoys this freedom. There are those poor souls who have no access to the internet because of lack of means or infrastructure. Then there are those who only have access to a limited subset. They can see what their government wants them to see.

For some reason, I find that really sinister. I abhor the idea of someone in power deciding what I can or cannot see.

Living in the UK, we are lucky to have a press that is the envy of the world. Up until recently, I believed that they operated with no interference. They print what they want, even if it holds the state to account for their behaviour. I can’t imagine the press reports about MP’s expenses would be allowed in China or Burma for example. This was the press at their best.

Not so long ago, the press blotted their copy books by illegally hacking phones to source interesting news copy. This was not their finest hour. In response, the government is introducing a new watchdog backed by legislation to control the worst excesses of the press.

I don’t like it.

David Cameron recently unveiled an agreement with all the main internet service providers in the UK to introduce a “porn filter”. Unless subscribers opt out of the scheme, their internet access will be filtered to exclude adult content. According to the Open Rights Group, as well as sexual content, this will include violence, extremist related content,  eating disorder web sites, suicide related web sites, alcohol and smoking related content and esoteric material (whatever that may be). Who’s going to decide what’s OK and what isn’t?

I really don’t like it.

Anyone who wants to view any kind of adult material will have to opt in. This means that they will be on a list of people who have actively chosen to view such content. I really hope we are not sleepwalking into a world where such a choice has negative consequences for the individual concerned.

The thing I find really sinister is that the infrastructure to block content will exist. Will successive governments resist the temptation to filter anything inconvenient? Can we even believe that we have free access today?

Does progress always have to be savage?

Navvies monument

Navvies monument (Photo credit: phill.d)

Whenever there is a great leap by mankind, someone, somewhere suffers. Empires rise and fall, companies thrive, plateau and die. Whole industries die out to make way for new ways of doing things. It happens over and over. In the long run, the human race as a whole blossoms, but in the short-term, someone, somewhere gets hurt. The incredible feats of Victorian engineering that came about during the Industrial Revolution only exist because of hoards of navvies. Working in appalling conditions for pitiful pay, these manual workers toiled away to produce some marvellous structures. The mortality rate was sky-high. More navvies died building the Woodhead Tunnel than during the Battle of Waterloo.

Jobs in manufacturing disappeared thanks to the rise in mechanised assembly lines. Printing jobs went up in smoke because of the digital age. Where it once took an army of workers to produce a large print run of newspapers, it now only takes a handful. Office workers in their droves saw their jobs vanish due to computerisation. Cars today are much more reliable thanks to the robotised construction techniques, but that means we employ far fewer car assembly workers.

The sheer amount of technology available to us today is mind-boggling. 10 years ago, I only had one multiple electric gang socket. Today, my house is riddled with them. All this technology has an increasingly diminishing shelf life. Many people replace their mobile phones every year if not more often. Today’s laptop will be tomorrow’s landfill.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

30 million computers are discarded in the USA every year. Europe manages to ditch 100 million mobile phones. All in all, an estimated 50 million tonnes of electrical waste needs to be disposed of every year. All of this waste contains a cocktail of poisonous substances and useful materials that could be recycled. Unfortunately, much of this waste ends up in developing economies where workers are slowly poisoned whilst earning a pittance to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In this country, we immediately throw our hands in the air whenever there is any kind of project that might affect the resale values of our precious homes. Spare a thought for anyone who stands in the way of a big engineering project in China. They certainly get the job done and progress is made, but at what human cost?

Of course, we eventually clean up our act. If you work on a big construction project today, the laws in place to protect you are legion. We are starting to put together frameworks for the handling of electronic waste. China has even passed a new law, after a tortured 12 year journey through the courts, to better protect the rights of homeowners when faced with compulsory purchase.

But when the trail is being blazed, the damage gets done.

I thought slavery had been abolished

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling ...

Two girls protesting child labour (by calling it child slavery) in the 1909 New York City Labor Day parade. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Contrary to popular belief, the British did not invent slavery. We certainly brought it back into fashion in the 1600s but slavery has existed in many different forms since before written records began. To be fair to us, we did our bit to bring it to an end too. Only slavery wasn’t eradicated at all and unfortunately anything up to 27 million people still exist in some sort of slavery today.

No reasonable person would agree that slavery is a good thing and yet still it exists and is widespread. No-one is openly condoning the practise, but there are shades of grey. Many people (like me) who condemn slavery will quite happily go into a shop and buy a smart phone or a tablet.

Allegations often crop up about the appalling working conditions in the factories that make such devices and yet Apple have sold 2 million of the new iPhone already. It’s not quite slavery by the purest definition of the word, but somehow it doesn’t feel quite right.

We turn a blind eye because it happens such a long way away. There are many labour laws that prevent it but if it happened in Western countries, we would be up in arms. If we were subjected to the same conditions in our workplaces, then industrial relations would be at an all time low.

I don’t think that technology companies are the only ones at fault. I would imagine that working conditions are poor in factories producing almost everything that’s on sale in our shops today. For the most part automotive manufacturers have a pretty good record, but what about all the components that go into making a car?

Sometimes poor pay and conditions are justified by saying that conditions are poor everywhere else in that particular geography. Effectively, that is what the people who come from that region are used to, so it must be OK. I imagine the British Captains that picked up some African tradesmen and swapped them for tobacco and coffee thought something similar.

I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Western governments need to come up with a scheme whereby any goods on sale would need to display a rating which would indicate the conditions in which those goods were made. Many of the countries that contain such manufacturing centres are highly corrupt so the assessments would need to be impartially carried out. Such a scheme would cost a lot of money to implement and would almost certainly increase the cost of the goods themselves as working conditions in the factories are inevitably improved.

Somehow with the Euro crisis high on the agenda and the rising economic might of China, I suppose they have bigger fish to fry, but I hope we look back on the abolition of such working practises in the same way as we look on the abolition of the slave trade in the 1700s.