Why tech companies are totally evil
21st Jul 2012 | 11:00
One of the biggest problems with tech is that it's largely fashion-driven
Have you ever wondered what it feels like to be evil? You don't need to be a moustache-twirling villain, cackling in a top hat as you tie a pretty damsel to some train tracks, and you don't need any sharks with laser beams or a house inside a hollowed-out volcano.
All you need to do is to buy a bit of tech, or buy something from a tech company.
Modern gadgets couldn't be much more evil if they were made from bits of humans and delivered to your door in a cart pulled by whipped and weeping five-year-olds. They're buggering up the planet, they're wrecking the economy and they're keeping people working in conditions you wouldn't wish on a robot.
It turns out that technology is like sausages: you can only really enjoy it if you don't think too much about how it's made or what it's doing to you.
One of the biggest problems with technology is that it's largely fashion-driven: by the time new hardware goes on sale, everybody's already focusing on the next generation. I don't know about you, but now that Intel's shipping Ivy Bridge processors I've realised that my Sandy Bridge-powered PC is a relic, and I must replace it immediately.
It's particularly pronounced with mobile devices. The iPhone 5 only exists in rumour form at the moment, but I'm drooling over it already, and my wife has to physically bundle me past electronics shops to prevent me from replacing my perfectly good, year-old tablet computer with something slightly better. Even if you're one of the sensible ones who only upgrades every second year, you're still getting shot of a perfectly decent bit of kit every 24 months.
Yes, you probably trade in the old one, or recycle it, or eBay it, but you're - I'm - still rushing to replace something that doesn't really need to be replaced, and whose manufacture involved mining all kinds of precious metals from the centre of the Earth.
And when you trade in, recycle or eBay your kit, you're in a minority. Many people simply chuck their old kit in the bin, and eventually it ends up in faraway breaking yards - places full of poison that look like hell with keyboards.
We're not responsible for that, of course. We're the good guys and girls, so we just stick to throwing children down the motherboard mines. Hurrah for us!
When you buy a new motherboard, it probably wasn't mined from the bottom of a well by a three-year-old. However, when employees of firms like Foxconn threaten to jump off the factory roof, as they did again this April, or when firms such as Apple bring in independent monitors to check for workers' rights abuses and underage assembly workers, it's clear that the tech industry isn't exactly saintly.
Apple gets the headlines, but everybody's at it. The reason most of our tech is assembled overseas is because that's where everything is. It's where the TFT panels, RAM chips and various other components come from. And in most cases, the reason all of those things are there is because of money.
It's much, much cheaper to make a PC in China than in California or Cambridge, because people in California or Cambridge expect better pay and better conditions. As a result, the electronics industry has moved east en masse, with foreign workers doing the jobs that used to be here.
Not all tech jobs can be outsourced, though. Big-name online retailers need distribution hubs, and those hubs need to be near their customers. That's good, because the big-name online retailer creates jobs here, but it's bad, because those jobs are awful.
Leak after leak shows people on temporary contracts working themselves to death in crappy conditions for crappy wages for crappy bosses so that we can get our mice a few pounds cheaper than in PC World. All of those workers pay tax. Their employers often don't.
Where's the money?
Here's a quick quiz. When you buy an iPad in a UK Apple Store, what country is your money in? If you answered "Ireland", you win a prize; Apple's retail sales are routed through an Irish subsidiary because Irish taxes are lower than British ones.
Last year, Apple paid just £10 million in tax on £6 billion in sales. Amazon didn't pay UK corporation tax in 2010 or 2011. Google's UK income is recorded as Irish for tax purposes, and many other tech firms have similar arrangements.
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This matters because tax pays for stuff: your gran's hip replacement, fixing potholes, ensuring people aren't turfed out of their homes if they're down on their luck. If firms don't pay it, then the rest of us have to pick up the tab - and if we won't, or can't, we have to slash services.
Tech firms avoiding tax also destroy jobs, because rivals who don't can't compete. To take one example, Amazon's ebooks are sold via Luxembourg, so it charges 3 per cent VAT. UK-based retailers have to charge 20 per cent.
Edmund Burke once wrote, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." The tech industry seems pretty evil to me. We're good people. What can we do about it?