Yesterday Tim and I etched circuit boards for our final media robotics project. One of the things I couldn’t help thinking about are the environmental implications of the kind of work that I am interested in doing; the ways in which doing them is, in some ways, a function of my privilege; and how to lessen the negative impact of my practice on the environment and society.

I don’t think there is a good way to go about building electronics, at least not in the way the world functions now. Materials for microprocessors are strip-mined, often from somewhere in the Global South, by companies that don’t give back to the communities they are shitting on. The chips themselves are often manufactured in factories of questionable ethics in countries where workers aren’t protected from unsafe working conditions, terrible pay, and other abuses. The substances needed to etch circuit boards in your own home are actually illegal to dump down your drain because they’re so dangerous to the environment.

Of course, there are better ways than others to go about the project of using technology for artistic or activist practice. The fact that we didn’t use single-use ferric chloride to etch our circuit boards is a step in the right direction [see relevant Instructable here]. But that doesn’t absolve the practice of the issues that plague the high tech industry. It’s easy and cheap to etch your own circuit boards, actually. The only problem is dealing with the final product — specifically your etchant. The stuff that we made is cheap and essentially infinitely reusable, if kept in an opaque container away from heat.

The problem, of course, is that it’s even easier to just buy parts. It probably wouldn’t have been too much more expensive to move this circuit board etching offshore. The boards we would get back would be more “professional” looking, but certainly less interesting as a part of this particular project, considering we made them ourselves. It’s not so expensive to buy a lot of things. And they aren’t necessarily ethically manufactured.

I can’t help but think about how the practice of building electronics in general can be made more ethical. It’s hard to square a commitment to interventionist products with a process that is, at best, patching up holes where they exist. It frustrates me to think about too much, I guess. But I’m always interested in how to make the things I do less ethically questionable.

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