If you browse through the tech news section, you will notice that smartphone specs dominate almost the entire section: the pricey ones with enhanced features, the budget ones with more and more features crammed into them, and the Chinese ones that have the best of both. Occasionally a small section is taken up by Alexa/PCs/tablets. And this very aptly reflects the consumer market for technology. The job sector reflects a similar story with the likes of Facebook, Apple and Samsung paying big bucks to hire the brightest of the lot.
But for a world reeling under pollution, climate change, water scarcity, sky-high garbage, this reflection seems disconnected with the actual reality. It’s true that the internet, along with other technological advancements, has made the world a more convenient place to live in, with positive impacts in the day-to-day affairs of a large population. But at this point, we could do more with affordable renewable energy harvesting than a device installed in the living room that uploads any sound to a cloud server for recognition and classification.
The tech giants of the current age have mostly evolved around personal gadgets and experience space. Peculiarly though, the demand for these products is created by these companies, instead of specific user need. When was the last time you felt the need to open your phone with fingerprints or found the use of handheld remote too mundane and needed a voice-based system? The technological innovations behind these products are worth applauding and undoubtedly provide a different user experience. And yet, it is worrisome that in a world where half the population lacks basic survival amenities, where the entire world stands on the edge of so many disasters, the leading technological innovation is there to enrich the whimsical experiences, instead of solving any of the problems.
The growth of any industry is consumer dependent. After all, the industries are there to make money, so, whichever way people are willing to spill it, the industry will take to that direction like catnip. And as with all other ethical questions, this one rests on similar grounds, whether we drive the product we need or the product itself creates a need in our life. We spend a lot of time online, watching things, buying things, and sharing them with others to bring them into the same loop. The rise of giants like Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba is in sync with this behaviour of the world economy. But what about the basic needs of survival, like clean air and water, of moderate temperature and natural beauty? That industry is growing too, but not in any way that is sustainable or justifiable.
The air conditioning sector has been receiving huge boosts every year with global temperatures soaring to new highs. Once the luxury of the upper class, now most houses and cars are equipped with it, only worsening the situation further. The water once thought of as a free resource, has to be now purified through layers of reverse osmosis and UV treatments. Next in line are personal checkup kits which are seeing a surge in demand as people experience difficulties even in basic routine activities. Air masks have already seen a good sales pitch in big cities, and air purifiers have started to soar in markets. So much for free air!
And while the industry—as it always has—begins to make money out of these new needs, the society gets further segmented as people who are unable to afford these luxuries are left to scramble in worsening conditions. Once again, since everything is money-driven, people with money prefer to to buy purifiers instead of getting rid of the pollutants, so guess where all the product research and development is happening?!
While the industries are catching up with the problems of the world, they continue to lag, providing post-disaster quick fixes instead of helping avoid the problem. Any technological advancement, which could actually avert the crisis—be it innovation in solar energy or nuclear energy—gets crushed in the research or start-up phase. There is news of cleaner fuel solutions, waste reuse and recycling schemes, of some local enthusiast providing a better way of agriculture or transportation in his neighbourhood. But after the initial euphoria, these initiatives die out, due to lack of funding, and effort and interest to sustain them. People are more willing to shell out exorbitant amounts for a weekend getaway in some grand resort in a distant locality surrounded by nature. Meanwhile, programs to protect local lakes and trees, clean up streams choked up with garbage, all die out due to lack of funding.
While the onus for implementing clean policies and stricter environmental rules is usually dumped on the governmental authority, as consumers, we form part of a much formidable agent of change. For starters, we can be more aware of the products we are using and the impact we are making on the environment. And then, instead of passively being fed products and solutions by the industries, we can drive the economy in the right direction by asking for sustainable products and rejecting the quick fixes ones.
This will indeed add an economic burden to our budget, but then, the cost of not doing so is so much higher. Think of the cost of your home air conditioning and electricity bills, of water and air purifiers, of blood sugar measurement strips. And add to it the unfortunate, man-made, floods and droughts, cyclones and heatwaves. All this exerts is a much higher financial burden in the long run compared to the one generated by switching to an eco-friendly lifestyle.