Covid-19 and Conflict-Free Technology: How will we overcome this crisis?
Guillermo Otano. Alboan Foundation
At this stage in 2020, with Coronavirus having spread its way across the globe, it seems that the sentiment of fraternity that kept us united up to now is beginning to wane in the face of a common threat. Like a mirage, the voices that once promised “we’ll come through this stronger” have given way to the uncertainty and the doubts that every crisis ultimately drags up: Who will come through this stronger? Who will end up worse off?
From the Conflict-Free Technology Campaign we feel the need to pose these questions with a firm focus on the realities we have been tracking in the Global South. Because this crisis will worsen situations that are already unfair and if we fail to keep this sentiment of fraternity alive in the search for solutions, many will get left behind.
The acceleration of the digital transition and the challenge of the energy transition
The lockdown measures adopted in the first months of the pandemic have accelerated the expansion and consolidation of remote working, digital commerce and online activity overall. Paradoxically, physical distancing was followed by an increase in virtual contact and digital traffic. Stock exchange prices of technology companies (Amazon, Google, Apple, etc.) sky-rocketed at first, accelerating a trend that had begun prior to the pandemic, although it is true that, once the initial euphoria had passed, share prices fell swiftly again. Stock market matters (explained here in La Vanguardia).
In the real world, however, it is without a doubt the ICT equipment sector that has come out on top. A number of specialised blogs highlight a substantial increase in sales of PCs, tablets, consoles, video games and mobile phones (by up to 20.4% in Europe), in the first half of 2020 alone.
This move towards a digital society is one of the pathways to the future for European institutions, the most notable one for the general public at present. The other, based on the Green Deal policy initiatives of the European Commission, entails the energy transition towards low-emission technologies (wind farms, electric vehicles, solar panels, etc.). Both commitments, to the extent that they depend on technologies requiring intensive use of electronics, will have an impact on the demand for “conflict minerals” (tantalum, tin, tungsten and gold) and other “strategic minerals” (cobalt, lithium, copper and rare earth elements, among others). This is why we must look to its effects not only here, but also beyond our borders.
The human consequences
The digitalisation of social living is changing our lives and the pandemic has accentuated this process even further. A recent study showed that “during lockdown, screens were used for an average of 9 hours and 16 minutes a day: a little over 5 hours were spent on work or study, and the rest, on other uses such as communication and entertainment” (Observatorio Social de la Caixa, 2020). The most striking findings include a negative correlation between the time spent on social networks, entertainment and communication each day, and actual subjective well-being. The conclusion is, thus, that a moderate use of technology enables better levels of personal well-being to be achieved. This is an issue that must be factored in when considering the impact technology has on our lives, and especially the lives of young people. But it is also a wake-up call in terms of the digital gap and how this crisis will widen inequalities between those who can afford to live online and those who cannot.
The move towards a digitalised society, in this sense, should not make us lose sight of the material foundations of this huge global transformation. This is one of the ideas that prompted the launch of the Conflict-Free Technology Campaign, in which we propose to break the link between the consumption of electronics, the extraction and commercialisation of minerals and the financing of armed groups in conflict areas.
Over time, we have learned that the unrest associated to mining has many facets and poses a range of challenges to the local communities, even more so in times of COVID-19. Last May, we joined our colleagues at the Justice in Mining Network in their call for solidarity and cooperation with communities affected by mining within the context of the pandemic. We share their concern for the effects of lockdown on the harassment of human rights and environment advocates; we decry the vulnerability of small-scale miners and the strategies of some mining companies to repeal environmental legislation and accelerate extraction rates; and we also call for more demanding due diligence around regulations to ensure supply chains that are more respectful of human rights and the environment.