May 19, 2005

vast swath of industrial mayhem

The last time I saw John Thackara was in a Tokyo basement bar; today he was in Palo Alto for the west coast leg of his book tour for In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World, and stopped by IDEO to give a short talk on human-oriented design principles. Alex Pang already posted a nice summary of the talk at Future Now, which I recommend to you.

As for the book, I'm reading it now and I believe I will end up recommending it to you as well. But I'm only about 50 pages into it, so give me a few more days. I will say that the first 4 pages of the first chapter ("Lightness") were quite provocative and got me hooked rather quickly. I have already quoted the following startling assertions to several people:

"One of the hidden costs of the misnamed silicon age is the material and energy flows involved in the manufacture and use of microchips. It takes 1.7 kilograms of materials to make a microchip with 32 megabytes of random-access memory -- a total 630 times the mass of the final product."

This is source on this is a 2002 Scientific American online article, which in turn references Williams et al, The 1.7 Kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices from the ACS Journal of Environmental Science and Technology (surely you JEST?), which is unfortunately for us a subscriber-only article. But this does not seem to be an idle claim. Also:

"[The] amount of waste matter generated in the manufacture of a single laptop computer is close to four thousand times its weight on your lap. Fifteen to nineteen tons of energy and materials are consumed in the fabrication of one desktop computer."

Sources on these statements are the book Natural Capitalism by Hawken, Lovins and Lovins, and Wolfgang Sachs, director of the Institute for Climate, Change, and Energy, in Wuppertal, Germany who says (as quoted on the netfuture list):

Preliminary results of a study undertaken by the Wuppertal Institute on the resource use of desktop computers show that electronic equipment is environmentally much more expensive than usually assumed .... Numerous components require the use of an array of high-grade minerals which can only be obtained through major mining operations and energy-intensive transformation processes. As it turns out, no less than 15 - 19 tons of energy and materials -- calculated over the entire life-cycle -- are consumed by the fabrication of one computer .... An average car ... requires about 25 tons.

Again, surprising figures apparently grounded in some amount of scientific analysis. So now I've got this notion stuck in my head, and every time I look at a computer I'm seeing ghosts of smelters and deposition furnaces and container ships and semi trucks, barrels of oil and vats of molten plastics, stacks of disks and rivers of solder, all trailing out behind the PC in a vast swath of industrial mayhem. Wow, thanks John for making me feel like a slime mold for helping to perpetuate the computer industry ;-)

Posted by Gene at May 19, 2005 12:33 AM


I wore that same (Roppongi) jacket at Ideo! Damn this internet; now I'll have to buy a second jacket.

Posted by: johnt at May 20, 2005 08:44 AM
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