Shrouding The Cloud: The Hidden Cost of Media Consumption

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While the images above may look like a charming series of Jackson Pollock paintings, the disturbing truth is that they are a mere snapshot into the reality that is Electronic Waste. E-Waste is made up of the tons of electronic devices we discard and dump each year and yes you read that correctly I said tons; 20 Million per year to be precise. (ifixit.org)

Seeing as electronic fads such as the latest I pod or smart phone last an average of 18 months before becoming damaged or obsolete, it is no surprise we are witnessing the rapid growth of mountainous wastelands within Asia and Africa.

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“The U.S. throws away around 400 million electronic gadgets each year — more than one per person and only about 20 percent of  that e-waste is collected for recycling; the rest goes to landfills and incinerators.”

What makes the rate of our electronic consumption so devastating is the harmful effect these electronics have on both people and the environment from their creation to their inevitable disintegration. Making all these gadgets takes an enormous environmental and public health toll. Rare earths are essential to the production of modern medias and to the illusive ‘cloud’ we store our lives on. Mining these earths causes irrevocable damage to the lands they are mined from. On top of this these rare earths include Lead, Mercury, Cadmium, Beryllium and Arsenic which are credited to ailments such as Cancer, Brain Damage, Chronic Lung Disease, Poisoning and Infertility. Those involved in the manufacturing process of electronic products are constantly being exposed to deadly toxins and that goes without even mentioning the slave labor conditions they are forced to work under. (ewaste.com)

Not only does it cost the environment to create these products, it is just as costly to run them. As the virtual cloud these products operate on expands in terms of storage and processing capability, so to does the amount of hardware needed to run the cloud. This is leading to a growth in the creation of ‘Sever Farms’ where land in cleared to make room for massive electronic infrastructure. Sever Farms are enormous they use up acres upon acres of land and they require copious amounts of energy.

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Check out these images by Martin Schoeller depicting a Facebook server farm. After we have discarded our old electrical devices the damage does not stop there. Left to decay in landfills they slowly release the toxic chemicals inside of them creating toxic waste that renders soil barren, air polluted and water undrinkable. To make matters worse 80 percent of this stuff is shipped overseas where it is broken apart by workers to extract small bits of valuable metal. These workers (some of them children) are once again being exposed to the deadly toxins.

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What really frustrates me is that the rapid cycles of innovation and obscurity that are responsible for the extent of our E-Waste are not something that just happens. It is exactly what large companies such as Apple want to happen and even plan to happen. When they make their products they are not made with sustainability in mind. They are extremely fragile and break quickly and they are designed like this to entice you into continually buying a new ones. Its all about maximizing profits and we so easily buy into it. When the new I Phone comes out the old one suddenly becomes obsolete. Why? because marketing and social conditioning tell us we need the newest gadget to live and fit in; despite the fact the differences between it and the older version are miniscule.

We need to start designing gadgets with the goal of sustainability outweighing the goal of profitability.

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The Digital Walled Garden: A Price on Entertainment

flanagan_walled_garden_03 “The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times.” (Kevin Kelly)

Previously wealth was built on the selling precious copies and as a result the instant duplication of data, ideas, and media undermines all major sectors of our economy. If reproductions of humanities best efforts are free how does one make money selling free copies? The truth is they don’t, so what is the solution here?…An advertising dominated online culture? Harsher punishments for copy right infringements? Intense DRM laws? An end to free streaming? Or the death of piracy?

All these things sound great (to businesses) however what this means for the consumer is the end of a free internet and the creation of a Walled Garden. Which in my personal opinion goes against the entire construct of what the internet is; a global data sharing service that facilitates the free flow of information.

For those not up with the lingo a Walled Garden is a closed platform or software system where the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and media, and restricts convenient access to non-approved applications or content (think Apple).

In Australia we have only just now gotten Netflix and at the moment it is very reasonably priced in an attempt to combat the competition of piracy (SMH). I was dumbfounded by the positive response it got and the sheer level of buzz it generated. A few of my friends got it and they couldn’t wait to tell me about how for only $14.99 a month they could gain access to the hundreds of shows Netflix had to offer. Off course my immediate reaction was: WOW that’s super awesome, did you know that for zero dollars a month you can gain access to every show ever?

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Now don’t get me wrong I’m all for supporting the industry and funding the artists but what I cannot understand is peoples willingness to buy into what is essentially a restriction of freedom. Let’s just say for arguments sake that in an ideal hypothetical future, piracy was non existent and access to the things we watched online were restricted only to paid streaming services such as Netflix. The price is cheap now because piracy is a threat but in a world without free downloading these services would have monopoly and therefore total control over price. This would be a world where the price of entertainment could fluctuate as frequently as petrol.

What people need to ask themselves is just what exactly they are buying into. While you are watching shows on Netflix, Netflix is watching you watching their shows. They know what you are viewing, when you are viewing it, how often you are viewing it and what sort of things you like. The luxury of private entertainment in the comfort of your own home is a thing of the past. The question here is, does knowing that someone knows what you are watching make a significant impact on what you watch? Would people stop watching porn if other people knew they watched it? Would manly men suddenly feel embarrassed about watching sappy romantic comedies? Would students start to have their study assistance rejected because their viewing data proves they are not putting in full time study hours?

When a service becomes an inhibitor to your daily actions as a person it becomes a breach of your freedom. Convenient solutions almost always come with an inevitable cost.

When Feeling Bad Feels Pretty Good

A Journalists’ first obligation is to the truth and as many journalists will tell you it is their sworn duty to aid in the creation of informed citizens by representing the world for what it is. By this rule it can be said that it is indeed the role of the journalist to paint a picture of human suffering, as it is a truth that can often be forgotten. And when it comes to painting pictures, a photograph is worth a thousand words. Throw back to the Vietnam War, this was the first war ever fought where society had the technological means of broadcasting the true nature of war to the general public. This was the first time everyday people were witnessing the horrors of conflict; being exposed to an undeniable experience of human suffering. This revelation of truth has been credited as a leading motivator for opposition to the war. Graphic footage of casualties on the nightly news generally tends to eliminate any myth of the glory of war and allows people to see war for what it is… Horrendous.

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The thing with the depiction of human suffering these days it that it seems to have a genre about it and that genre is ‘Poverty Porn’. What is poverty porn you ask? Put simply it is any type of media, be it written, photographed or filmed, which uses the poor’s condition as a tool to generate the sympathy necessary for a desired outcome. Outcomes such as selling newspapers, harbouring support for a cause and even gathering charitable donations. When it all boils down to it these kind of depictions stem from basic marketing and being a student of marketing myself, I know just how exploitative the practice can be.

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As Emily Roenigk explains “Poverty is a result of both individual and systemic problems, involving not only personal circumstances but the social and justice systems in place that either work to empower the poor or perpetuate their condition” ‘Poverty Porn’ has the ability to over simplify these kinds of issues giving people a warped perception of reality rather than the truth it arguably portrays.

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So why do we use this type of advertising? Because it works!

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It is in fact a successful method of sharing information with a public that may, otherwise, ignore the problem and evoking emotion is the best way to induct a positive response. However, “In the long run, it does not encourage people to think about the systematic challenges of ending extreme poverty…The use of these inflammatory images of the poor in such a manipulated light are reinforcing a crude us and them divide to the wider public, namely, that they are entirely and utterly dependent on us” (Julie Ulbricht and Hugh Evans).

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We need to stop and ask ourselves whether it is ethical to depict the graphic qualities of human suffering for the sole purpose of eliciting an emotional experience. The people in these images are human beings in need of help not pity and who is it that really benefits from these images considering it is human nature to feel good about yourself for feeling bad about others? On the other hand as Time magazine editor Richard Stengel states “Bad things do happen to people and it is part of our job to confront and explain them”. Without depictions of human suffering would western society ever be exposed to this reality and would the general public ever feel compelled to confront the issue? I’m leaning towards no. The issue becomes not should we be depicting suffering but rather how we should be going about it.

‘Selfies’ The New ‘Vanitas’

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It is human nature to strive for a sense of belonging and I believe ‘selfies’ allow us to gain this sense through a process of instrumental conditioning. We post pictures of ourselves at our best moments, when we look good, when we are doing something awesome, when we have just accomplished, achieved or even purchased something. Then we post these images as mundane as they may seem to the internet and wait for the likes to roll in.Slowly we begin to teach ourselves that more likes equate to greater feelings of self-worth. It seems silly when written out like this but it is still true none the less. So why do we do this? Because it’s just a part of our culture? Because it makes us feel good about ourselves? Because it’s a way to express who we are? A way to shape the narrative of our lives? Or is it because we are all vain, self-cantered and narcissistic at heart? There are many who believe the latter.
Christine Rosen (2007) claims that Social networking sites are fertile ground for those who make it their lives’ work to get attention. She discusses how Self-portraits allow someone to show how they wish to be seen which encourages self-seeking and egotistic behaviours.
In ‘Selfie Use: Abuse or Balance?’ psychologist Pamela Rutledge sates that the issue with ‘selfies’ are they “frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence” (2013, p. 8).

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However is today’s ‘selfie’ generation really becoming more narcissistic?
I mean we are certainly not the first generation to explore self-portraiture, it has existed throughout the ages and has generally been used as a means of showing status. From ancient Egypt to the 1800’s people have been using self-portraits as a way of saying this is who I am, this is what I can afford and this is what I have accomplished.

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Perhaps the influx of selfies is not a sign of an increase in narcissism but rather a product of human nature in a time of technological ease and availability. Humans strive to succeed in life and often we feel we have not succeeded unless that success is recognised by others. So it makes perfect sense to me that the internet is filled with ‘Selfies’ considering we live in in an era where you can snap shot and portray yourself in whatever manner you desire and then send this portrayal to a public audience with nothing but ease.

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As bleak as it is for me to write this when future generations look back on our time ‘The Selfie’ will be the art form that defines us. Although most (including myself) would not consider ‘The Selfie’ a credible art genre it is undeniable that it is communication tool used to express the way a person wishes to be seen which in itself is a form of art (one we have mastered well). Whether this a good or a bad thing I am still undecided.

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References:
Rosen, C 2007, ‘Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism’, The New Atlantis: Journal of Technology and Society, vol. 2, no. 17, pp. 15-31, viewed 15 March 2015, <http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/virtual-friendship-and-the-new-narcissism&gt;.
Rutledge, P 2013, Selfie Use: Abuse or Balance?, Psychology Today, viewed 15 March 2015, <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/positively-media/201307/selfie-use-abuse-or-balance&gt;.
Saltz, J 2014, ‘Art at Arm’s Length: A History of the Selfie’, Vulture, 27 January, viewed 15 March 2015 <http://www.vulture.com/2014/01/history-of-the-selfie.html&gt;.