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Death by Design (2016)

Not Rated | | Documentary | 21 May 2016 (USA)
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Consumers love - and live on - their smartphones, tablets and laptops. A cascade of new devices pours endlessly into the market, promising even better communication, non-stop entertainment ... See full summary »

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Consumers love - and live on - their smartphones, tablets and laptops. A cascade of new devices pours endlessly into the market, promising even better communication, non-stop entertainment and instant information. The numbers are staggering. By 2020, four billion people will have a personal computer. Five billion will own a mobile phone. But this revolution has a dark side, hidden from most consumers. In an investigation that spans the globe, filmmaker Sue Williams investigates the underbelly of the electronics industry and reveals how even the smallest devices have deadly environmental and health costs. From the intensely secretive factories in China, to a ravaged New York community and the high tech corridors of Silicon Valley, the film tells a story of environmental degradation, of health tragedies, and the fast approaching tipping point between consumerism and sustainability. Written by Ambrica Productions/ Death by Design

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The Dirty Secret of Our Digital Addiction

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The terrible toll that tech takes
30 September 2016 | by See all my reviews

This is a film about the dark side of tech and are you surprised that Apple is the biggest villain? A mostly talking heads documentary can still be very valuable, and Sue Williams' film is living proof. So while the film has plenty of atmospheric and revealing film footage of customers, workers, and (damaged or damaging) environments, what counts most in Williams' film are the people who address the camera. Here are some of them.

Ma Jun, Institute of Public Environmental Affairs (China), explains that more than 60% of China's groundwater is not suitable for human use. Ted Smith, a Stanford lawyer and environmental activist who founded Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, reports on the toxic chemicals stored in Silicon Valley that have entered the ground and says the EPA Superfund program requiring environmental cleanup of factory damage is more active in Silicon Valley than anywhere else in the country. All the big tech company Silicon Valley locations are Superfund sites, he says, and cleanup will take not decades but centuries. This will come as news to most of us even who live in or near Silicon Valley.

More about this comes from Amanda Hawes, a lawyer on a team that brought a class action against IBM in the Nineties for workers with health problems from chemicals used in company production. We meet a woman who cares for her son born with severe developmental disability due to her exposure to chemicals 30 years ago. (Mark, the son, is not a "talking head." It's his body and his helplessness that speak.)

Since 1999, the consumer electronic gadgets have snowballed, with severe consequences. Scott Nove, Worker Rights Consortium, explains how outsourcing enables companies like Apple to bypass human safety rules and allow young poor workers from the country to be pushed to the point of suicide in China so 100 million iPods can be sold or a million iPhones can be delivered in a week.

In country, we meet Li Quiang of China Labor Watch: workers' pay is so low it accounts for only 1% of iPhones' cost. The film shows young Chinese assembly line electronics workers, and a few speak to the camera about the pressures to produce and work long hours. Foxconn is the big Chinese Apple supplier, we learn, biggest private employer in the country, over a million workers. Twelve hour days, 30 days without a day off: that's the kind of slave labor that produces the iPhones, iPads, etc., that Americans are so addicted to. Workers died in an explosion from iPad backing in a Foxconn factory.

Garrett Brown, an occupational health and safety expert, comments on this. So does Scott Nove. They both say Apple knows exactly what it is doing and Foxconn's abuses and foul-ups are unconscionable.

Next comes disposability of product. Apple products are designed not to last. New iPhones and laptops have batteries you can't swap out, so you have to replace the entire product in a year or two (if you want it to work on battery charges) and make the company richer. There are opponents, like iFixit - Luke Soules is a young co-founder - which helps people fix the products instead of replacing them. Obviously this is one of the big parts of the problem: too many products, and the number of products could be curtailed. But the tech industry is secretive, exploitative, wants to own the product even after you buy it. Not possible in other industries: a car manufacturer can't prevent car owners from replacing their tires. Luke goes to China and director Williams follows him there. Alex Li is his local translator, who helps him visit multiple circuit board manufacturers in Shenzhen before he finds one with environmentally responsible practices that he can buy from.

It's pleasing after what we've learned by now to see Ma Jun win a Skoll Award for socially responsible entrepreneurship. Back in China, he says it's cheaper for the tech factories to pay fines than to comply with environmental standards in the country because the fines are too light. Apple is the worst offender, arrogantly refusing to reveal its supply chain. Linda Greer, an environmental toxicologist with the National Resources Defense Council, worked with Ma Jun to put the pressure on Apple.

Williams turns away from China in the last quarter of her documentary to tech-caused environmental cancer in the US, and developments elsewhere. In Endicott, New York, near an IBM factory, people are ill from chemicals leaked into the ground all along one street a generation later. We hear from the Sherlings. Their son died. Last year a class action, a decade of lawsuits, led to an IBM payoff of under $20,000 per plaintiff. She finds small European companies like MicroPro and iAMECO in Dublin, Ireland, building fair trade, repairable, updatable computers built without dangerous materials. Anne Galligan is the co-founder; their laptops are in wooden cases. Darrin McGee, and environmental geographer addresses the growing issue of after-sale waste, thrown- away electronic -- Dan Cass is a tech device recycler -- and much of the electronic waste winds up back in China near where the devices were made, Guiyu, where pediatrician Xia Huo found the children have high levels of lead. Kimberly Prather, Atmospheric Chemistry, UCSD, says "a metal's a metal's a metal" whether in soil, water, or air -- "you still have a metal," and China's pollution comes back to us. It travels the globe.

Death by Design is a simple no-nonsense film, but neatly edited with elegant graphics. It's essentially an instructional film about a subject that it's urgent to know about. The message is we must all be more aware and more responsible. And consider looking for green devices next time and not replace them so often.


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