You might view the smartphone you’re (probably) using to read this article a little differently after watching Death by Design, the latest documentary by the American filmmaker Sue Williams.
The film puts the life of electronic devices under the microscope, exposing the drastic environmental and health costs that are chalked up in the manufacturing process despite the end-products’ relatively short lifespans.
“I could have made it (the film) about plastic bottles or blue jeans, but I wanted to take something that everybody feels really attached to.” Williams tells Asia Times. “I think it’s a powerful way to make people think about how they consume.”
Documentaries about the environment and technology are not new. But Williams’ 73-minute production takes things up a notch, tying up multi-faceted concerns with its focus on indispensable gadgets in our modern lives such as smartphones and computers.
The project started off as a profile of Ma Jun, a Chinese environmentalist and one of the main characters in the film. He has done groundbreaking work on electronics companies’ environmental violations in China.
“I actually never even thought about [electronics being unclean],” says Williams, who after some research and trips to Silicon Valley and China realized the subject lent itself to much more than a story about one person or community. “It became very clear that as I learnt more about it that [Ma] is one valuable part of a very big global problem.”
Referring to the industrial transfer from the US to China that began in the late 1970s and 80s, William says: “It’s very important to know what the industry knew before they went to China.”
The film first takes us inside US factories back in the 1980s. A former IBM employee who worked on a US semiconductor production line at the time, while pregnant, later gave birth to a brain-damaged son. She had not been informed about the toxicity of the materials with which she worked every day.
Workers were provided with protective clothing, but “that was to protect the products, not the people”, says the woman in the film.
The film uncovers an internal IBM database that shows extremely high incidence of cancer among retirees.
From there, Williams’ lens shifts to the Taiwanese manufacturer, and Apple’s biggest supplier, Foxconn, whose workers have also suffered health problems.
In 2010, more than a dozen Foxconn workers, mostly in their early 20s or younger, chose to end their own lives in desperation. Hundreds of thousands of its workers still work more than 80 hours a week, enduring enormous strain and boredom, and astonishingly low pay.
Best known for her proclaimed trilogy about China for PBS, Williams started Ambrica Productions in 1986, with an objective of looking at issues “with an international scope and interest.” Such a focus, along with her knowledge of both Chinese and American history, is fundamental to this film, as she traces how the industry evolved and traveled across borders.
The tech industry also brought to China, and other developing countries, the problem of electronic waste pollution. The film reveals that when tech companies found out that chemical waste from their products had started contaminating the soil and water around Silicon Valley, they began to look for new dumping grounds to get around their legal and environmental obligations.
“The industry was clear about what they were doing when they moved to China,” says Williams. “I was struck by the fact that the industry really took off after moving to China.”
The film suggests, however, that this “exporting” of the problem is an illusion at the end of the day. In an experiment where a team of University of California, San Diego researchers flew over the US to measure and trace chemicals in the clouds, they claimed to find solid evidence that “exported” toxic pollution eventually finds its way around the globe.
The point Williams forcefully makes is that environmental problems tend to come full circle.
The film had its international debut at last year’s Seattle International Film Festival, a cinematic jubilee right at the heart of the city that is home to Microsoft, Amazon and countless other tech giants and start-ups. The director felt herself “at the belly of the bees” and worried about how the film would be received.
“We did a Q&A, and asked how many people worked in the electronics industry. Two-thirds of the audience put their hands up but they all responded like people did at other screenings – ‘What can we do?’ ‘We had no idea.’ ‘How can we do better?’ ”
Williams takes a short pause, her eyes widening. “[They were] asking me what to do.”
She says: “They haven’t seen this, haven’t been to Foxconn to see these factories,” said Williams. “They sit in their desks in Seattle with lattes and micro breweries and food delivery services and they just see the good that the tech industry has brought them.”
So, what can one do? Williams offers some ideas in the film.
One of these comes from the story of an Irish startup, IFixit, which sells repair parts and provides online repair guides. Founded by two young creative engineers, the company challenges excessive consumption by helping people to adopt the habit of fixing things as a way to regain autonomy over their products.
“They (the tech companies) give you this (a device) and say don’t worry about it if you break it, get a new one,” says Kyle Wiens, co-founder of IFixit, in the film. “You don’t really own it, in a way.”
“It’s quite a sobering film, not easy to watch for some people. So I tried to be solution-oriented,” says Williams. “We will have to find other ways to make things and we have to do a better job. That’s why I made the film.”
At a screening in Hong Kong, one businesswoman in the audience expressed her desire to take the film to mainland to initiate discussions with local governments about the issues raised.
“I so hope that happens,” says Williams. “I hope it goes viral in china. Because we really need to think about the ways we consume.”