While emerging technologies have greatly increased the quality of life for those who have access to them, they also have the potential to lead to a number of serious social injustices. This section will address the threats that emerging digital technologies pose to the life and dignity of the human person by their violation of human rights, the ways they can be used to harm and exploit people, the dangers of excessive digital consumption and the detrimental effects that some of these technologies have on the environment.
Advancements in technology were intended to enhance life, but like many things, they can be misused. For example
- While social media platforms can be a great way to evangelise or keep up to date with news and events they can also be a means of spreading misinformation and inciting hatred.
- The same devices and apps that can be used to share photos and videos of friends and family on the other side of the world can also be used to facilitate human trafficking and modern slavery through the making and dissemination of pornography.
- While a pilotless drone can be used to deliver much needed medical supplies to a seriously injured person in a remote area, drones can also be used as weapons of war.
- While rapid improvements in technology means that things are working more efficiently, it has led to devices being replaced more frequently causing even more damage to the environment.
The internet and social media have made it easier for many people to exercise their right to freedom of expression (Article 19 of the ICCPR) to a much wider audience than previously possible. Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right in any free and democratic society and one which has inadequate protection in Australia (especially considering that Australia claims to be a Western liberal democracy). Freedom of expression is fundamental to the democratic process as it allows all the potential parties, candidates and commentators to disseminate their information, research policies and views so that people can make an informed choice about who to elect.
However social media and the internet have also been used to undermine democracy with the spread of misinformation, “fake” news, cyber bullying and vilification of people who hold a differing view in an attempt to silence them out of the public debate.
Social media platforms and the algorithms they use collect an inordinate amount of data on their people. Some of this data (such as a profile name or email address) is voluntarily given by the user when they sign up. However, after that the platform will usually track they articles or posts, they, like, read, or share and forwards that information on to advertisers who can more strategically target their advertisements based on information people did not consent to give away. While this practice may be mentioned in the “Terms and Conditions” of use, less than 6% of Australians ever read and even fewer will understand them before just accepting them
Child Sexual Exploitation, Pornography, Human Trafficking,
The increase in accessibility of smartphones (which can easily take photos and videos) and of accessibility of the internet has led to an explosion of online child sexual exploitation and pornography. The overwhelming majority of those engaged in producing pornography are coerced or forced and most of them are vulnerable women and children. The nature of the internet means that these crimes can be committed anonymously and across international borders making it incredibly difficulty to identify, capture and successfully prosecute the offenders.
In 2013–14, the then Australian Crime Commission conservatively estimated the financial cost of the crimes of child sexual exploitation, human trafficking and modern slavery at A$89 million. However, the cost in terms of the physical and emotional health of the victims and their families and communities cannot be measured. In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography estimated that the criminal child sexual abuse material-market generates between USD$ 3-20 billion annually but other estimates say it could be much higher.
While the online world can be a way to better connect with people who you are far away from physically, there a number of ways in which the digital environment enhances loneliness and exclusion with several seriously detrimental effects.
The digital world is not a natural space or social setting. Everything is designed by the platforms that we use. All the platforms are put forward by companies and the primary goal of companies is the make a profit. Even if users do not pay to use their service the companies make money by selling advertising which their users then see. Advertisements are targeted based on user preferences, meaning people increasingly see content that aligns with their own views, reducing the chance for a dialogue with those of differing views.
The digital world is also commonplace for online bullying and danger. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference 2019-20 Social Justice Statement “Making it Real: Genuine Encounter in our Digital World”points out that more than 20% of Australians have experienced online bullying and 75% of young Australian women have experienced online harassment. Of that, 40% of abuse was misogynistic and 20% of that included threats of sexual and physical violence. Tragically, there are several cases where bullying (including cyberbullying) have led young people to take their own lives.
There is a growing trend of people exhibiting addictive behaviour to devices and social media. A recent Australian survey found that there is a growing trend of Australians who check their phone first thing in the morning, at 12 minute intervals during the day and it is the last thing they do before going to bed at night. An extreme case of addiction can result in a young adult dropping out of study, declining to socialise with friends and skipping meals because of addiction. The World Health Organisation has included gaming disorder (where a person gives increasing precedence to gaming) in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). In the UK, the prevalence of loneliness is so high that the in 2018 Prime Minister Theresa May called it one of the greatest public health issues of our time and appointed the first ever Minister for Loneliness.
While more and more digital services move online, those who find themselves excluded from the digital world increasingly find themselves excluded from the real world. This is particularly so for those who do not have access to the internet or smart phones, where internet is poor or for those who due to a physical condition cannot readily use the new technologies.
The Human Cost and the Environmental Cost
There are a number of social injustices associated with the production of the devices that make ready access to the digital environment possible. The first are the human rights violations including modern slavery in producing the devices. The second is the environmental damage caused by mining the materials needed, the energy required to run all the data centres which enable the technology to work and the high replacement rate for devices because technology keeps improving so rapidly
The human rights concerns come from the use of modern slavery and child labour as well as the fact that several of the components in electronic devices are designated conflict minerals.
The term “conflict minerals” comes from US legislation but is now recognised around the world, dubbed “3TG” to mean tin, tantalum (sometimes known as coltan or blue gold), tungsten, and gold. Some state that cobalt should also be designated a conflict mineral. They are referred to as conflict minerals as their mining all too often funds extra-judicial killings, torture, systematic rape, armed militias, corruption and money laundering, war and genocide in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and similar war torn areas.
The three “Ts” are mostly mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and they’re all used extensively in electronics. They may be mined my large international conglomerates or by what are termed “artisanal” miners but both are characterised by inadequate wages and inadequate health safeguards.
Amnesty International has found children as young as seven working in the cobalt mines in the DRC with inadequate safeguards. UNICEF estimates there may 40000 children working in the mineral mines of the DRC. Many other rare earth minerals which are essential components of electronic devices are sourced from China which is also characterised by human rights violations.
The mining of these elements is one of the most intensive uses of heavy fuel oil, a non-renewable resource which reduces air quality and the usual detrimental impact that mining has on the surrounding ecosystems.
The intended life span of a smartphone was around two years but as technology keeps improving so rapidly this timeframe is decreasing. Many people will choose to upgrade as soon as a new phone comes out, even though their old one is completely workable. While some companies offer “recycling” programs for old devices, it is not really clear what happens to them once they are returned. The estimated amount of e-waste generated in 2016 is around 50million tonnes.
The other environmental factor comes from the servers that run in data centres which are used for every internet search or streaming service. Having the servers running constantly generates a lot of heat, requiring those buildings to be cooled and the energy needed for cooling does not always come from renewable sources. The manufacture and use of smartphones, computers and TVs will produce 4 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and 8 per cent by 2025.
For what the Catholic Church teaches on Emerging Technologies click here.
To find out more about emerging technologies and their social justice implications click here.