5.11 Case Study: Fairphone
It may seem strange now, but twenty years or so ago technology companies were overwhelmingly seen as a force for good. Social networks were relatively new and promised to bring people together. Nokia ruled the mobile phone world as touch screens had not yet been invented.
Now of course things have changed. Big tech companies are increasingly under fire for all kinds of reasons including alleged tax evasion and the lack of responsibility for social media. It is not much different in the fast growing educational technology world. As Audrey Waters has recently said “more and more, companies are starting to push for the aggregation of student data into analytics tools that can be sold in turn back to the school.”
“By collecting every click, homework submission, quiz and forum note from tens of thousands of students,” TED describes Coursera founder Daphne Koller’s talk, MOOCs have become “a data mine that offers a new way to study learning.”
Waters believes tech should not be used simply, as London Knowledge Lab professor Diana Laurillard has said, “to access masses of data from desperate would-be students.” She was referring to the question of scale and access and technology and MOOCs and specifically responding to a round of funding that Coursera had just raised. “Venture capitalists,” she said, “are not spending $22 million to nurture students.”
Indeed as technology writer Douglas Rushkoff has long argued, “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.”
At the same time the scramble for the lithium need to produce batteries and the other rare minerals used in mobile phones has highlighted moral and ecological concerns about technology.
This leads to the question of whether it has to be like this. There is a long running movement for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), described by Wikipedia as a form of international private business self-regulation which aims to contribute to societal goals of a philanthropic, activist, or charitable nature by engaging in or supporting volunteering or ethically-oriented practices. Considered at the organisational level, CSR is generally understood as a strategic initiative that contributes to a brand’s reputation. As such, social responsibility initiatives must coherently align with and be integrated into a business model to be successful. With some models, a firm’s implementation of CSR goes beyond compliance with regulatory requirements and engages in “actions that appear to further some social good, beyond the interests of the firm and that which is required by law”.
Businesses may engage in Corporate Social Responsibility for strategic or ethical purposes. Fairphone provides a good example. Fairphone is a social enterprise company which aims to develop smartphones that are designed and produced with a lower environmental impact. The company is based in Amsterdam and was supported in its startup phase by the Waag Society, a foundation which aims to foster experimentation with new technologies, art and culture.
Fairphone was founded with the aim to develop a mobile device that does not contain conflict minerals (which in smartphones are typically gold, tin, tantalum and tungsten), has fair labour conditions for the workforce along the supply chain producing it and help people to use their phone longer.
Fairphone have also developed modular device aimed making the phone more easily repairable and therefore longer lasting and reducing waste.
Douglas Rushkoff (2011) Program or be programed. Ten commands for a digital age
Audrey Waters (2021) Student data is the New Oil, MOOCs, Metaphor and Money, http://hackeducation.com/2013/10/17/student-data-is-the-new-oil
Take one technology product you own – perhaps a laptop pr a mobile phone. Try and find out the policies of the manufacturer. Is it easily repairable? Does the company may a living wage? Does it have a policy around ethics? Share your findings in the chat below.