Additional Information About Challenging the Chip

Mat Bewig’s Review on Challenging the Chip

“The book identifies three core concerns with the industry. First, electronic products are manufactured using more than a thousand toxic chemicals known to cause cancer, miscarriages, asthma and/or other health problems. Second, the industry’s profit strategy of “planned obsolescence” has caused an explosion in the number of electronics products that are replaced and discarded each year at a rate faster than they can be responsibly recycled. Third, actual product manufacturing has been shifted to low-wage countries with weak labor and environmental laws, which yields bad occupational and public health and continued poverty.” – Mat Bewig

New Wave of Technology

In his Foreword, former Texas Agriculture Commissioner Jim Hightower makes out a case to explain how “technology happens”. He writes: “Take cars. After Henry Ford began mass production, it took only a flash in time for these four-wheeled chunks of technology to wholly transform our landscape, environment, economy, culture, psychology, and … well, pretty much our whole world. For better or worse, cars created freeways, shopping malls, McDonald’s, drive-in banking — even the Beach Boys!”

Hightower argues: “A new wave of technology is sweeping the land. It is embodied in the tiny chips (and the computers they power) that are radically and rapidly transforming our world — and, like the automobile, not always for the better.”

Story of the ‘Dark Side of the Chip’

He also contends that the story of the “dark side of the chip” needs to be “told and retold” across the “global village” before it is too late to do anything about it.

This book narrates the story of how the high-tech industry grew in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight” (before the place got renamed to Silicon Valley) and how Santa Clara Valley fruit-processing workers such as Alida Hernandez got reinvented into “clean room” workers. This “deplorable pattern is still bing replicated around the world”.

Stories of Electronics Workers Suffering Toxic Exposures

This 357-page book contains stories about electronic workers suffering toxic exposures, and fighting over it. From south-west US and the Maquiladora region on the US-Mexico border, to Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, China, and India.

This book argues that “far too (words) have been addressed to the downside of the (electronics industry’s) revolution”. Its co-editors, in a signed article titled ‘The Quest for Sustainability and Justice in a High-Tech World’, say: “Although most consumers are eager to enjoy their latest computers, televisions, cellular phones, iPods, and electronic games, few relate the declining prices of these and other electronic technologies to the labor of Third World women, who are paid pennies a day.”

Other issues focussed on by the co-editors include environmental degradation, occupational health hazards, and the “widespread ignorance” of the “health and ecological footprints of the global electronics industry.”

There are problems of contamination by hi-tech manufacturing (of workers, air, land, and water) from all around — Silicon Valley in the US, Silicon Glen in Scotland, Silicon Island in Thailand, and Silicon Paddy in China. It contrasts the reality between the “CEOs and upper management” drawing “multimillion-dollar salaries and ‘golden parachutes’” as against the reality of the production workers living in packed dormitories and often facing sweatshop conditions.

Unsung Heroines and Heroes

While acknowledging the work of the hi-tech revolution pioneers, this book’s editors also point to the “accomplishments of the unsung heroines and heroes of this revolution’s other side”. Including Santa Clara Center for Occupational Safety and Health founder Amanda Hawes; San Jose, California housewife Lorraine Ross, who battled against Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation’s polluting practices in Silicon Valley; Thai occupational health physician Dr. Orapan Metadilogkul who confronted Seagate Corporation; and Scottish semiconductor worker Helen Clark “who gave her life fighting to provide a voice for poisoned workers of National Semiconductor’s plant in Silicon Glen.”

Globalization of Electronics, Labor Rights, Product End-of-Life

Its editors say this book has “two geographical frames of reference” — the vicinity of San Jose, California (or, Silicon Valley), and “parts of the world increasingly integrated into global networks of electronics production, consumption, and disposal”. This volume looks at three “broad, integrative themes”: the globalization of electronics manufacturing; labour rights and environmental justice; and the product end-of-life cycle issues (e-waste, and extended producer responsibility).

In terms of global electronics, the book focuses on Silicon Valley (where the US electronics industry’s roots lie, and which has a three-decade history of community and worker dialogue and struggle). It also looks at electronics manufacturing in China, India, Thailand, and Central and Eastern Europe.

In terms of labour rights and “environmental justice”, the book looks at the stories of workers and environmentalists taking up such issues — “work hazards, anti-union hostility, and environmental health perils” — in countries that range from the US, to Mexico, Scotland, and Thailand, among others.

E-waste issues get looked at in the context of trading or dumping from the North to South. “But as nations like India and China increasingly modernize, their own industries and consumers are contributing to the problems as well,” say the editors.

Failed to Keep Pace With Social and Environmental Advances

They argue that while the electronics industry leaders have produced “enormous technical innovation over the years”, they have failed to keep “sufficient pace with the socially and environmentally oriented advances that are available to them.” In their chapter titled ‘The Quest for Sustainability’, co-editors Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, and David Naguib Pellow suggest that sustainability, environmental justice, and labour rights “cannot lie solely in the hands of either the social movements or the captains of industry or the representatives of the state”. Instead, it suggests, all citizens and stakeholders must play a role in shaping the industry, its workers, and the environment wherever communities get affected.

Downside Not Addressed

Says an introduction to its contents: “Of the millions of words written over the past several decades about the electronics industry’s incredible transformation of our world, far too few have been addressed (to) the downside of this revolution. Many are surprised to learn that environmental degradation and occupational health hazards are as much a part of high-tech manufacturing as miniaturization and other such marvels.”

Additional impacts

Editors Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, and David Naguib Pellow also comment: “Although most consumers are eager to enjoy their latest computers, televisions, cellular phones, iPods, and electronic games, few relate the declining prices of these and other electronic technologies to the labor of Third World women, who are paid pennies a day. Fewer still realize that the amazingly powerful microprocessors and super miniaturized, high-capacity memory devices harm the workers who produce them and pollute the surrounding communities’ air and water.

Comments on the Book

Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of the book Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment calls this book “essential reading for anyone who owns a cell phone or a computer” and says “our digital possessions connect us not only to global information but also to global contamination and injustice.” Nicholas Ashford, MIT Professor of Technology and Policy and co-author of Technology, Globalization, and Sustainable Development calls the work “an impressive, comprehensive critique and hopeful, but realistic, blueprint for transforming the global electronics industry into a sustainable one encompassing technological advance, environmental improvement, and equitable, safe, and secure employment”.

Jan Mazurek of the University of California at Los Angeles’s Department of Urban Planning and author of Making Microchips says that “contrary to high tech’s clean image, this pioneering work illustrates the industry’s environmental and economic downsides from the birthplace of Silicon Valley to the four corners of the globe to which the industry recently has spread”. Mazurek comments that this book is “told from the compelling and passionate perspective of workers and activists involved in these struggles.”

Regions Covered

Chapters of the book cover “Made in China” electronics workers, Thailand’s electronic sector’s corporate social responsibility, electronic workers in India, workers in and around Central and Eastern Europe’s semiconductor plants (Russia, Belarus, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, and Romania), Silicon Valley’s Toxics’ Coalition and workers’ struggles, Mexico, Taiwan’s Hsinchu Science Park, other issues from Taiwan, high-tech pollution in Japan, the electronic waste trade, e-waste in Delhi, producer responsibility laws in Sweden and Japan, among other themes.


Its contributors include Ravi Agarwal, Leslie A. Byster, Shengling Chang, Hua-Mei Chiu, Anibel Ferus-Comelo, Tira Foran, Connie García, Ken Geiser, Yu-Ling Ku, Joseph LaDou, Apo Leong, Boy Lüthje, Glenna Matthews, James McCourt, Sanjiv Pandita, Raquel E. Partida Rocha, David Naguib Pellow, Jim Puckett, Chad Raphael, Robin Schneider, Amelia Simpson, Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, Robert Steiert, Joel Tickner, Naoko Tojo, Wen-ling Tu, Kishore Wankhade, Andrew Watterson, David Wood, and Fumikazu Yoshida.


This book is edited by Ted Smith, David A. Sonnenfeld, and David Naguib Pellow, with Leslie A. Byster, Shenglin Chang, Amanda Hawes, Wen-Ling Tu, and Andrew Watterson. Its foreword is by Jim Hightower.
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