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Does Your Smartphone Sync with Your Values? Behold: The Fairphone!

The speed of innovation and the speed of ethics do not run parallel. Technological change races forward at such velocity that we rarely have time to wonder if these technical advances may in fact be moral regressions. Technology may be the hare and ethics the tortoise, yet it seems in this case that the hare has so thoroughly distracted the tortoise with shiny gizmos that it may no longer even be in the race. For it seems that the technological world frequently gets something of a pass from otherwise ethically engaged individuals.

Some of this may be a result of a, not altogether misplaced, notion that when it comes to technology there simply aren’t many options. Apple might be dodgy when it comes to taxes, Google might be panoptic when it comes to privacy, net companies may view you as just a data point, giant Internet companies may have an authoritarian bent but what’s the alternative? And surely what one of these companies does regarding taxes, privacy, and horrendous labor policies the others do as well. People might pine for an alternative more in line with their ethics…but can they find one?

Well, if that person lives in Europe it may have just gotten a bit easier. As EU residents can now order “a seriously cool smartphone that puts social values first” it’s not an “I”phone it’s the Fairphone. According to the Fairphone “Company Profile” (which is part of their downloadable press kit):

“Fairphone’s mission is to develop a seriously cool smartphone that is designed and produced with minimal harm to people and planet. Its vision is to deliver technology that really matters. Taking a step-by-step approach, Fairphone aims to make the story behind the production of electronics more transparent, making ethical interventions where possible and giving consumers a choice for fairer electronics.”

What is meant by the above statement? After all, could these not simply be “feel good” talking points? It could be, but Fairphone is not about talk but about actually producing this product. From the miners mining the minerals (yes, that was fun to write) used in the physical item, to the workers assembling the devices, Fairphone aims to make itself and its customers cognizant of where the various pieces come from and who it is that’s putting it together. It makes sense; if people care about the farm their coffee comes from, shouldn’t they care about the mine their phone’s materials come from? If they’re ethically consistent they should.

Fairphone’s publicity materials (and company ethos) make clear a commitment to a, shall we say, “fairer” phone. Furthermore the company seems to be approaching this ethical commitment broadly, which is a good thing. Not only does the Fairphone have a commitment to worker welfare, and for getting minerals from conflict free zones, but the operating system is also comparatively open, and the company is addressing environmental concerns with an e-waste program and a battery that is replaceable.

At first even the company itself must have had a slight degree of trepidation about the project, as they needed to secure 5,000 preorders before production could start. However, on Tuesday, June 4, 2013, the company passed the needed 5,000 preorders mark, and thus the Fairphone will become a reality. So congratulations are due to Fairphone, the company took a gamble to see whether or not there really was sufficient interest in an “ethical phone” and it seems that there is (though 5,000 preorders is not a huge number).  Fairphone still has a long way to go, especially as their goals include genuinely changing the electronics economy and eventually being able to produce their phone entirely from recycled material. But they needed the 5,000 to start, and they got it. So, kudos.

There’s a lot to be said for the Fairphone – and by this what is meant is “Fairphone the company and idea” not “Fairphone the phone” seeing as this is not a product review. Anybody who has ever gazed in frustration at friends protesting/speaking/planning against economic/social injustice whilst tapping obsessively at a device produced by a tax-cheating, polluting, worker repressing company can certainly understand the appeal of the Fairphone. And those who have felt ethically uncomfortable about where their devices come from now have a real option (at least if they live in Europe). There are apps that exist to help people make ethical purchases, but until now there was not an ethical phone on which to run those apps. Indeed, there are many good things to be said about Fairphone, and their website is so filled with bright colors and positive lingo as to make one feel like a grumpy curmudgeon for having problems with Fairphone.

But as much as one may like the idea of Fairphone, there are still legitimate reasons to be wary of the emergence of the company. It doesn’t make one a grumpy curmudgeon to see these things, it just requires the same level of ethical consistency that drives one to like the idea of a “fair” phone in the first place. And this is not even to make the simplistic (and somewhat unfair) argument that a Fairphone running Facebook is just as bad (from a Facebook position) as an iPhone running Facebook.

Fairphone still operates within the framework of worldwide global capitalism, indeed their business model relies on exploiting space within that framework to sell things to ethically aggravated consumers. The point, and this doesn’t invalidate what Fairphone is doing, is simply to note that Fairphone may obtain its minerals from “conflict free” zones and the workers assembling Fairphones may be treated and paid better than the depressing norm…but this does not mean that suddenly these new labor practices will become the standard.

Fairphone is a more ethical entrant into the smartphone market, but it is still an entrant into the smartphone market. It aims to break off a chunk of the consumer base disenfranchised by negative corporate policies and thus allow for a corner of the market to be a more moral space, to break the hold of the larger companies and allow for a new ethical entrant.  And yet, as Jacques Ellul wrote in The Technological Society:

“The idea of effecting decentralization while maintaining technical progress is purely utopian.” (Ellul, 194).

And the Fairphone is a rather utopian project. Granted, there is nothing wrong with utopian projects. Furthermore an ethical stance couched in a vaguely utopian end goal can give people a powerful thing to strive towards, a goal like, say, digital devices that will stand up to the demands of a morally upstanding consumer. Yet it needs to be remembered that a utopian hope and a product that works towards that does not in itself bring a utopia.  Your phone may now be a shining beacon of morality but the other phones you’re calling, the apps you’re running, and the phones still flooding the market, are still building the tomb in which utopian dreams will be interred. This in turn brings the matter back to the question of the consumer.

In our time, “ethical consumerism” is the health of capitalism. What is meant by this is that “ethical consumerism” blunts ethical demands against the entire capitalist system, by transferring these issues into the safer area of individual consumption choices. Have a problem with the way your iPhone is made? One no longer needs to take on the whole system, now one can just order a Fairphone (assuming they live in Europe), and thus the demand for larger scale reform and action gets subsumed into the non-threatening realm of buying a new shiny toy.

By providing space on the shelf for “ethical” products capitalism’s apologists can claim that the system is clearly working and that if people really want change they can “vote with their dollars” by purchasing these “ethical” products. Thus Fairphone shoulders the systematic ethical issue, and thereby frees other companies from having to deal with these issues, one can almost imagine Apple’s CEO Tim Cook (or any CEO) saying “don’t like our labor policies, fine, buy a Fairphone.” The result is that we need not question capitalism or the devices that are peddled, for we can have a version of whatever we want that aligns with our moral compass. Though we mustn’t ask whether or not we needed it in the first place. This was captured by Erich Fromm (in The Fear of Freedom) where he wrote that:

“All our energy is spent for the purpose of getting what we want, and most people never question the premise of this activity: that they know their true wants. They do not stop to think whether the aims they are pursuing are something they themselves want.” (Fromm, 217)

The individual needs not question whether they need a smartphone in the first place, they can now be satisfied with getting what they want. Thus, beyond the system being able to cast away its responsibility, such products also carry the possibility that consumers will consider their ethical duty fulfilled by their act of consumption. Better than that they now have a device that simultaneously meets a moral demand and demonstrates to others their ethical credibility all at the same time it’s an ethical fashion item: “oh, you’re still using an iPhone *scoffs* no, this is a Fairphone.”

While it is slightly unfair to cast this as Fairphone’s fault, the company does seem to be at least moderately aware of this societal stance as their site (in a few locations, including a very feel good video) states: “Buy a phone, Start a Movement.” True this is more catchy than “Buy a Fairphone, other phone manufacturers are terrible” but this tagline carries the worrisome capitalist propagandizing in which buying something ceases to be a capitalist act but becomes invested with ethical power.

Indeed, “buying a phone” is quite different from starting a movement to challenge conditions in factories, or demand better recycling of e-waste, or call upon companies to demonstrate that their minerals are conflict free. Starting a movement and sustaining a movement is hard, it requires work, and features many wins and losses, buying a phone requires having the money to buy a phone (and in this case living in Europe). Indeed, a much more fitting slogan for Fairphone (in all seriousness) would be “Fairphone, it syncs with your values.”

We live in an age where it is an ongoing challenge to hold fast to ethical imperatives whilst still participating in society. This struggling against the status quo of imposed values demands from those committed to remaining ethical an act of continual rebellion against the values sold to us by society, and this essential spirit was described by Albert Camus (in his book The Rebel) wherein he wrote of the contemporary challenge, that:

“Even by his greatest effort man can only propose to diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world. But the injustice and the suffering of the world will remain and, no matter how limited they are, they will not cease to be an outrage.” (Camus, 303)

The people behind Fairphone seem to be motivated by a genuine desire to have a positive impact, and those who preordered the phones were doubtless motivated by the same drive. Yet in all instances of engaging in ethical capitalism we must bear in mind that doing better in the “ethical” area does not alleviate the larger problems caused by capitalism.

Fairphone, and similar projects, may “diminish arithmetically the sufferings of the world” but those who are truly committed to holding fast to ethical obligations must keep in mind that “the injustice and the suffering…will remain,” and “they will not cease to be an outrage” no matter how good the resolution of the phone.

Works Cited

Camus, Albert. The Rebel. Vintage International, 1991.

Ellul, Jacques. The Technological Society. Vintage, 1964.

Fromm, Erich. The Fear of Freedom. Routledge, 2001.

On Similar Topics:

Buycott all you like (as long as you keep buying)

Ethics and Buying a Smartphone (with help from Simone and Simon)

[The unofficial soundtrack for this post are the songs One Wave and Yes, We Can both by The Astronauts]

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

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