The Costs of an Increasingly Computerized World

The first MOSFET, a type of transistor which could easily be scaled down to nanometers in size, was created in 1959. This breakthrough was critical to the development of the first microprocessors in the 1970s. The Altair 8800, the first personal computer, was introduced in 1975. The was followed in 1981 by the IBM PC, which greatly influenced today's system architectures. The Internet started rapidly gaining popularity in the late 1990s and since then has amassed billions of users.[1] The first iPhone was introduced in 2007, largely increasing the popularity of smartphones.

As computers become increasingly small, powerful and inexpensive, they become accessible to more people. It is estimated that over 5 billion people own a mobile phone[2]. Microprocessors and internet connectivity are being incorporated into more products, even those that do not inherently require them for their basic purpose, such as refrigerators. The presence of computers in the workplace and school continues to grow. While in many ways these changes have been beneficial, there are some significant issues with many of the ways computer technology is used and implemented.

The manufacture of computer equipment is an environmentally costly process. Many different materials have to be assembled into the various components within a device, some with high toxicity. Additional materials, such as water, are required by the various manufacturing processes. Obtaining these materials and the energy used to manufacture devices creates significant emissions and other environmental impacts such as the displacement of radiation.[3] Packaging and transport of finished products also has a large impact on the environment.

Many newer devices, especially smartphones and tablets, are not designed to be easily repaired or disassembled. This often means devices become unusable even if only one component is broken. Electronic waste is difficult to process due to the materials involved and the way devices are constructed. Many devices are sent overseas to so-called recyclers who do not properly dispose of them.[4]

Most electronics manufacturing is done in countries such as China and India where labor is cheap, but employee protections are weak and often not enforced. Factory workers are often required to work 12-hour shifts with little break time, and working conditions are often poor.[5] Between 2007 and 2011, 17 workers at Chinese factories owned by Foxconn, a company responsible for the manufacture of around 40% of all consumer electronics, committed suicide by jumping from buildings.[6]

As more data is moved from physical mediums such as filing cabinets to electronic systems, so do the risks associated with storing it. Data breaches are becoming increasingly common, with systems being frequently targeted by hackers who perform a range of attacks. Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks use a large number of infected computers to overwhelm the target system with phony requests, preventing legitimate users from accessing the system. Another common type of attack uses malware called ransomware to encrypt or leak files in order to extort the owner of the system. Securing computer systems against malicious activity is a lucrative market, with a potential $2 trillion market opportunity. Despite this however, many systems remain insufficiently protected against attacks, with the monetary damage from said attacks projected to grow to around $10 trillion by 2025.[7]

In recent years there has been a shift from on-premises hosting of computer systems to remote storage and application services commonly referred to as 'the cloud'. These services are often easier and cheaper to set up and maintain, as they are managed by the service provider rather than the user or a company's IT department. At the same time, however, this means the service provider has significant control over the data processed by and stored within the service.

Many such services, especially those geared toward consumers, are not designed in ways that provide adequate privacy and security. Companies such as Google offer their services free of charge to consumers in exchange for allowing their data to be used for Google's targeted advertising. Google had been scanning the contents of messages sent to Gmail accounts for this purpose until 2017.[8]

Zoom, a company that provides online videoconferencing services, came under fire by the FTC in 2020 after claiming the service offered end-to-end encryption when it in fact did not. End-to-end encryption is an encryption scheme that prevents third-parties, including the service provider, from having access to data transmitted through the service. The FTC also claimed that recorded meetings were stored unencrypted on its servers for up to 60 days, and that it installed software on Mac devices to bypass security features.[9]

Tech companies have recently been incorporating online functionality into otherwise offline products. The two latest major versions of Microsoft Windows include many features linked to Microsoft's online services such as Cortana and Xbox. The Home version of Windows 11 requires the user to create a Microsoft account in order to use the operating system unless the user performs a difficult workaround.[10]

Digital privacy has been gaining attention, as the current norm is a lack thereof. In addition to the largely unrestricted use of data provided by users of online services, many companies such as Google and Facebook track users of unrelated sites through their advertising networks and other services geared toward site owners such as Google Analytics.[11] These companies use the data they collect to infer information about the user such as location, demographics and interests. This information is used to serve the user ads that are purportedly more relevant to them. Legislation has been passed in some areas, such as the EU GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act, in order to establish privacy protections, however many other US states and other regions of the world lack equivalent protections.[12]

Various government agencies engage in surveillance of internet users. The National Security Agency of the United States has gained notoriety after it was revealed in 2013 to be operating multiple surveillance programs involving the activities of US citizens. Companies such as Microsoft and Verizon played a large role in the collection of data associated with those programs. Similar programs exist throughout the world, with alliances between intelligence agencies such as the Five Eyes.[13]

Censorship of online content is another significant issue. Certain sites are blocked in various countries, including those whose citizens are considered to enjoy a large amount of freedom otherwise.[14] Censorship also exists within sites that host content created by users, such as social media sites, which can remove content and ban users for arbitrary reasons.

The majority of computer software and online services require the user to accept lengthy agreements governing their use. Most often these agreements are heavily restrictive of how the user is allowed to use the software or service, and include provisions such as requiring the user to submit to binding arbitration and waiving their right to participate in class action suits against the company.

Technical means may also be employed to limit the ways in which the user can use software. This is especially prevalent in mobile operating systems. Most versions of Android preinstalled on devices do not allow the user to easily remove certain applications even if they are not necessary for the device to function, instead only letting the user 'disable' them.[15] Users of Apple's iOS are limited to only using applications in its App Store, which have to be approved by Apple, though this may change soon.[16] Similar restrictions exist in desktop operating systems such as Microsoft Windows.

Despite prevalence of these issues, it is possible to reduce or eliminate many of them. The right-to-repair movement aims to ensure users can easily repair their devices in a cost-effective manner, simultaneously reducing the environmental impact caused by the manufacture of new devices.

Free Software is licensed under terms that allow the user to use, modify and share it without restriction.[17] There is a wide range of Free Software available, from everyday applications such as web browsers to alternative operating systems based on the Linux kernel, such as Ubuntu. LineageOS is a fork of Android that can be installed on many smartphones and gives the user full control over the device. A fundamental property of Free Software is that the source code is freely available, increasing privacy and security through public scrutiny. Many people already use free software without knowing it, such as Firefox and OBS!

Installing an ad or tracker blocker such as uBlock Origin and using alternatives to sites that collect large amounts of user data can greatly improve online privacy. Such sites include more private search engines such as DuckDuckGo, online messaging services that feature strong encryption schemes such as Signal and Matrix, and various proxies and alternative frontends for sites such as YouTube. More advanced measures include configuring network-level tracker blocking and routing sensitive traffic over networks such as TOR that anonymize the user and circumvent censorship.

By using these alternative services and software, and encouraging others to do the same, we can change the status quo. Now more than ever, movements for computer technology that's better for the user and the environment are gaining traction. Pushing for legislation that protects consumers will ensure tech companies are kept in check, and that computers work for us rather than their corporate creators.

Citations (retrieved Jan 9, 2024)

[1] Petrosyan, Ani "Internet and social media users in the world in 2023" Statista, Oct 25, 2023,

[2] Silver, Laura "Smartphone Ownership is Growing Rapidly Around the World, but Not Always Equally" Pew Research Center, Feb 5, 2019,

[3] Milton, Lena "Are Electronics Bad for the Environment?" The Sustainability Co-Op, Mar 24, 2022,

[4] Lecher, Colin "The dark side of electronic waste recycling" The Verge, Dec 4, 2019,

[5] "Labor Conditions in China's Consumer Electronics Sector" China Labor Watch, Nov 13, 2023,

[6] Beckett, Lois "By the Numbers: Life and Death at Foxconn" ProPublica, Jan 27, 2012,

[7] Aiyer, Bharath; Caso, Jeffrey; Russell, Peter; Sorel, Marc "New survey reveals $2 trillion market opportunity for cybersecurity technology and service providers" McKinsey, Oct 27, 2022,

[8] Statt, Nick "Google will stop scanning your Gmail messages to sell targeted ads" The Verge, Jun 23, 2017,

[9] Fair, Lesley "Zooming in on Zoom's unfair and deceptive security practices: More about the FTC settlement" Federal Trade Commission, Nov 9, 2020,

[10] Piltch, Avram "How to Install Windows 11 Without a Microsoft Account" Tom's Hardware, Apr 26, 2023,

[11] Eckersley, Peter "How Online Tracking Companies Know Most of What You Do Online (and What Social Networks Are Doing to Help Them)" Electronic Frontier Foundation, Sep 21, 2009,

[12] "International Privacy Laws" UC Berkeley Office of Ethics,

[13] Macaskill, Ewen; Dance, Gabriel; Cage, Fielding; Chen, Greg "NSA files decoded: Edward Snowden's surveillance revelations explained" The Guardian Nov 1, 2013,

[14] Cherry, Gabe "'Extremely aggressive' internet censorship spreads in the world's democracies" University of Michigan News, Nov 17, 2020,

[15] Nield, David "How to Rid Your Phone of Those Default Apps You Never Use" Wired, Aug 23, 2020,

[16] Wallen, Jack "Applie hints that iOS 17.2 will enable sideloading apps, but not for everyone" ZDNET, Nov 13, 2023,

[17] "What is free software and why is it so important for society?" Free Software Foundation,

Published 2024 January 9

By crispycat


You are not logged in or do not have permission to post comments.

No comments have been posted yet.