You Don’t Have to Do This


Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.


To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

Ilhan Omar speaking at worker protest against Amazon (45406484475)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
— Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”


Zippity Doo Dah


In a perfect world where people are always well-behaved and courteous and the bluebird of happiness accompanies them throughout their day, the zipper merge would work as harmoniously as traffic engineers envision it working. In practice, the zipper merge rarely works well, and instead it becomes a place where jerks can take advantage of the polite behavior of others in order to cut in line. Everyone who drives is familiar with the traffic setup, but not everyone may be acquainted with the term “zipper merge”.


A zipper merge refers to the area of road where one or more lanes end, and all traffic must move into the remaining open lane or lanes, such as in a construction zone. A similar situation presents itself where one lane of a road becomes an exit, with warning signs posted that the lane is for exiting only. Traffic engineers refer to these areas as zipper merges because ideally that is how they want drivers to conduct themselves where a lane closes down or where an exit lane is about to leave the main roadway. Like a closing zipper, cars in adjacent lanes should politely alternate merging together into the one open lane, making use of the closing lane as much as possible.

Construction Barrels (14173532670)
Every driver recognizes these orange barrels as the lane markers in road construction zones, but not every driver reacts to them the same way, much as traffic engineers would like them to.

It’s a neat theory, and when it works as proposed it is a fine thing. “After you, sir.” “No, I insist, madam, you go first.” “Ah, very well, I shall do so then, and a fine day to you, sir.” “My pleasure, madam.” And a tip of the hat to you, too. Usually, however, most drivers who see the warning signs about a lane closure will move over to the through lane early, queuing up. The zipper merge happens in a sense, but farther back from the closure than engineers envisioned it. This polite behavior by most drivers is admirable because it invokes the manners ingrained in many people from early in life, but it has the effect of leaving a stretch of open road in the closing lane, and that is a temptation for jerks.

Not all drivers who take advantage of the open lane are jerks in their own eyes, because it is as hard for a jerk to recognize his own jerky behavior as it is for a fish to understand it is swimming in water. There are many rationalizations available to jerks, after all, the most prominent one provided by the traffic engineers who designed this scenario. The jerk reasons as he zips past everyone waiting patiently in line and then cuts in at the front “We’re supposed to use all of the closing lane up until the very end, but the idiot sheep lined up over there don’t understand that!” he would be more hesitant to try the same maneuver in a long store checkout line, but here in this situation traffic engineers have by default endorsed predatory driving, and therefore the jerk sees it as okay.

The exit lane situation is designed into the roadway, rather than being an ad hoc situation due to construction, but it promotes the same kind of selfish behavior. A multiple lane road in town loses one lane to an exit, and at times when the traffic is heavy there may be a long line of slowly moving cars in the lane which will eventually veer off the main road. The opportunistic jerk assesses the situation and, instead of dropping into line at the back, where cars are moving slowly and obviously intend to exit, continues at speed in the lane adjacent to the exit lane until he sees his opening near the front, shortly before the exit lane leaves the road, and swoops in, as often as not using his turn signal, as if that made his shark move alright. “Hey, I’m signaling! Let me in!”

There’s not much that can safely be done about zipper merge jerk behavior other than rage against it or hope that traffic engineers get their heads out of the clouds and figure out a better way to design merge zones, one that takes into account actual human behavior in the real world. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the auto mechanic brothers who conducted the Car Talk call-in radio program on NPR until 2012, when elder brother Tom’s failing health forced them to discontinue the show, had a caller on one show that they reran in 2015 who had a question for them about using the open lane in a zipper merge. The show was Episode 1538: “Aberrant Behavior Syndrome”, and the caller was Brian, from Kentucky, who called in at about the 11:30 mark of the show. Brian wasn’t absolutely a jerk, even if he did rationalize using the open portion of a closing lane at the expense of his fellow drivers, but Tom and Ray – especially Tom – set him straight in a most definitive and entertaining manner, and their reasoning goes beyond the misconceptions of traffic engineers and the pushiness of jerks who look out only for themselves.
— Ed.