Final Analysis: The Myth of Heroic Invention

Next time you’re craving the latest smartphone, watch 'Death by Design' instead.

Death by Design sounds like a Woody Allen film. It’s not.

It’s a documentary by Sue Williams, who has been making films in and about China for 30 years. And it’s kind of scary.

Death by Design isn’t strictly about China, but that country’s role in the production of our sleek, sophisticated digital gadgets is crucial to the film’s message. The message is this: That shiny new smartphone of yours — the one with so many bells and whistles that you can’t possibly know what all of them actually do — is the product of a dirty, filthy, disgusting, polluted, skanky manufacturing process.

Did I mention dirty?

Just as vegans like to remind meat eaters that we probably don’t want to see how our steaks are made, Death by Design offers a monumental wake-up emoji that should shock anyone who owns a digital device.

Williams was in Seattle in May for showings of her documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival. During a Q&A after one screening, she used a phrase that has stuck with me — and hits me across the forehead every time I look at my sleek Motorola Droid Turbo. It’s “the myth of heroic invention.”

The phrase has been used before to point out that no invention is really a revolutionary advance. As the distinguished environmental scientist Vaclav Smil noted in a 2011 piece in The Atlantic, “Many award-winning inventions are re-inventions,” and, “The popular heroic narrative has almost nothing to do with the way modern invention and innovation work.”

Smil says the real process of innovation is a messy one, and this is what Williams zeroes in on with Death by Design. “From the 1970s through the 1990s,” she notes, “when electronics were made in the United States, they poisoned not just workers but local communities. From one plant after another, thousands of gallons of cancer-causing chemicals leaked into the groundwater, poisoning neighborhoods across Silicon Valley. … More than a generation later, these same carcinogens are still traveling through the soil and up into people’s homes and offices.”

Most people don’t know that California’s Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley, has 23 Superfund cleanup sites — the most of any region in the country. It has been estimated that the cleanup from the contaminated dumpings and leavings of such blue-chip companies as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Advanced Micro Devices, National Semiconductor, Teledyne and Westinghouse could take up to 300 years to complete.

Now that the manufacture of our semiconductors and the gadgets they power has shifted overseas, it’s hard to get exercised about the awful chemicals workers are exposed to in making our favorite new gadgets. But exposed they are, not to mention everyone in the neighborhoods of these gadget factories. According to Death by Design, penalties for environmental violations in China are so low that it’s often way less expensive to pay the fines than pay for proper wastewater treatment.

A single electronics supplier to a company like Apple can generate more than 100,000 tons of hazardous waste in a single year. And even though Apple doesn’t officially divulge the identity of its suppliers, we’ve all heard of Foxconn, so we can and should hold Apple’s feet to the fire.

The problem is exacerbated by a throwaway culture that virtually requires us to “upgrade” to a new phone, a new tablet, a new laptop, every few years. These devices could easily be repaired and reconditioned, but the manufacturers don’t want us to do that, so they make it virtually impossible for the average consumer to fix anything — preferring that we blissfully continue to believe in the heroics of modern invention.

It’s time to stop believing. 

John levesque is the managing editor of Seattle Business magazine. Reach him at

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