Wifi Use Statement

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Because we are a technology reuse and recycling organization, we mainly deal with old technology; things that are almost universally adopted and thus abundant in the waste steam. We don't promote its use, but make it possible for people to acquire it and "catch up." The decisions we make about technology generally have to do with what we will give away (both with respect to hardware and software) and are guided by our mission to reuse equipment and empower people.

One technology that has gone from rare to widespread in the time since we opened our doors is wireless networking (wifi), which uses similar technology to cell phones to allow network access without wires.

Although we were pushed to adopt wifi from quite early on, we were reluctant to start using it (thereby promoting its adoption among our volunteers) without considering the impact this technology might have. Many concerns our research turned up are of the "it's too early to really know" persuasion, as this technology has not been around and tested long enough for us to know its impact on the people and other creatures exposed to it.

For example:

  • there may be short or long-term effects on the brain¹
  • we do not know if "wireless clouds" would influence the ability of birds to navigate

We will only be able to test the long-term effects of this technology after it has already been widely adopted for a long time - essentially, turning us all into guinea pigs.²

Other concerns we have center on a material necessary for wireless technology, called Tantalum. Tantalum is a rare earth metal that is only found in a few places. Because of growing demand caused by the popularization of cell phone, laptop and wifi use, tantalum mining has become a lucrative business in areas that sometimes have delicate ecosystems and unbalanced economies. This led to wars, exploitation and environmental havoc in the Congo³. That situation has been mostly addressed through policing and international embargoes4, but that is just one example of how consumer electronics can be linked directly to environmental and social problems.5

Because tantalum is only present in small amounts in the equipment that we receive, and is only accepted by recyclers in large quantities, FREE GEEK is not currently recycling tantalum. We feel that we are not able to do our part to alleviate the problems of tantalum mining. Some mining companies are making steps toward greater sustainability6, but recycling what is already in the world is a better solution.

We also feel that in our position we need to act as an example, not just accepting new technology blindly, but considering what hidden impact it will have on our lives and that of the world in general. This impact may well be partially negative, partially positive, or as yet unknown. In places where wiring is impractical (rural Africa, for example7), the unknown and negative health, environmental, and social impact of wireless technology may be outweighed by the benefit of access to technology. In Portland, which has an existing wired infrastructure, the benefits are more of convenience. Adopting wireless networking at FREE GEEK requires the use of hardware, such as laptops and wireless network cards, which we cannot yet provide to our volunteers.

However, despite the concerns that we have weighed, we have decided to set up a wireless access point at FREE GEEK because many of our volunteers already have and wish to use wireless-enabled laptops. We also hope to expand our accessibility as a community computing resource, and there is a growing segment of the community who have already invested in this technology. In the end, we are a democratic organization.

We do hope that people try to understand the concerns we have about this and other technologies and consider the impact seemingly simple decisions have, both as near as your brain and as far as Australia. No purchasing decision is a neutral one.

See Also

Tantalum reuse.

  1. Doctors see problems with cell phone use: http://www.laleva.cc/environment/freiburger_appeal.html
  2. One view on the increased use of wireless technologies: http://www.mindfully.org/Technology/Microwaving-Planet-Firstenberg1997.htm
  3. Tantalum mining in the Congo (BBC): http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/1468772.stm
  4. Embargo on tantalum (coltan) and other materials from the Congo: http://www.globalpolicy.org/security/issues/congo/2001/0416panl.htm
  5. Killing gorillas? That's not good: http://www.npr.org/programs/re/archivesdate/2001/dec/20011220.coltan.html
  6. Mining companies move toward environmental accountability: http://www1.sog.com.au/pages/environment.asp
  7. Using wireless networking in Africa: http://www.w2i.org/pages/oped/2004/0130.html