Tag Archives: science

Internet access – it’s all a load of fuss about nothing

Be honest, which household gadget could you live without? Would there be any impact upon your day to day life if you had no laptop? What about your phone or your vacuum cleaner?

When my two friends and I were choosing a flat to live in just after university, having a washing machine wasn’t one of the priorities. ‘The launderette’s just round the corner,’ we reasoned, when weeks later we were hand washing most of our clothes in the bathroom sink. The lady who ran the launderette was rather strict and we were a bit scared of her; she advised us on drying times for different clothing types and that was all a bit much.  ‘Hand washing saves money and water, too,’ we admirably reasoned.

Whatever their gadget of choice, I’m fairly sure that most people I know would rather lose quite a few household mod cons than lose their internet connection.  To work, communicate, find out information and keep ourselves entertained most of us rely on the internet on a daily basis.

Even the Lords are talking about its importance. A communications committee has raised concerns that the government’s obsession with rolling out speedy broadband overlooks those parts of the country which have little or no coverage at all.

Well, if you ask Ha-Joon Chang, the author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, those people in remote parts of Cumbria who each evening struggle to stream yesterday’s episode of Eastenders in a valiant attempt to keep in touch with what’s happening in the outside world don’t have it that bad after all.

I’m reading Chang’s book at the moment and really like the way that he challenges aspects of free-market capitalism which we don’t really question that much. I don’t always agree with him, but it’s refreshing to read a viewpoint which strays from the norm.

One of his chapters is: ‘The washing machine has changed the world more than the internet has’.

He argues, first of all, that the development of internet-based communications hasn’t had as much impact on humankind as the invention of the telegram did. Chang uses the example of sending a 300 word message across the Atlantic. Sending a fax would take 10 seconds and an email two seconds. The invention of the telegraph, on the other hand, reduced the travel time of a message from the steamship’s best attempt, two weeks, to just eight minutes.

More interesting though, and linking to my (brilliant) anecdote about washing machines, is the social change which Chang attributes to the invention of the washing machine.

The time saved thanks to washing machines, according to Chang, has transformed the way that women live by enabling them to enter the labour market (as opposed to washing and ironing clothes by hand and the other lengthy domestic chores due to the lack of electrical appliances). It also meant that those women who were working were increasingly employed in non-domestic roles.

Brilliantly, this: ‘has definitely raised the status of women at home and in society, thus also reducing preference for male children and increasing investment in female education.’

Even better: ‘Even those educated women who choose to stay at home with their children [now] have higher status in the home, as they can make credible threats that they can support themselves should they choose to leave their partners.’

Leaving to one side the, ahem, blissful and limited family unit drawn here, and the fairly patronising overtones about the ‘status’ of women, is Chang making a valid point?

I do like this challenge to the presumed idea that the internet is the greatest progression that society has ever made. But I’m slightly bristling at the argument which places the realm of washing clothes so firmly with women, and that simplifies complex interpersonal processes such as divorce or workplace equality into such a linear process.

On an individual (and possibly selfish) level I’d rather be able to stream a documentary whilst emailing a friend than dry and iron my clothes in super-quick time. But, do we owe more to other technological inventions than we think?

No doubt, inventions such as the washing machine changed the way we all live. But, is there more to come from the telecommunications revolution in the future? And what about the social change which the internet has already brought about?

Are we being conned into thinking more about our daily moisturiser?

I like to think of myself as a consumer who is fairly conscious of health and environmental issues. I am a recycling obsessive, I carefully consider what I eat and I avoid buying products which I know could be difficult to dispose of once I’ve finished using them, such as detergents and aerosols.

But a recent trip to the US has reignited my ongoing concern with the chemicals in the beauty products which we use daily, and which seem largely to go undiscussed in the mainstream beauty media in the UK. Many US companies are now mentioning the absence of these ingredients, such as parabens, sodium laureth sulphate and others, as part of the marketing campaigns for their products.

I first became concerned about this problem after watching (the arguably over-exposed but, I think, ethically sound) Sarah Beeny in her 2007 programme for Channel 4, How Toxic Are You?  As a ‘celebrity’, she gained a mixed reaction from the press, who largely chastised her for what was perceived as unscientific naivety. She was worrying about the fact that the products we use on our bodies, including deodorants, moisturisers and shampoos, are not ‘natural’ when we are constantly surrounded by chemicals and artificial products.

(c) miss_yasminaSome scientists have suggested that there could be links between the parabens (which act as preservatives) used in deodorants and breast cancer risk, as they may mimic the effects of oestrogen. However, scientists and charities, such as Breast Cancer Campaign in a letter responding to a Sun report on the topic, are quick to emphasise that these claims are not backed up with reliable evidence and cannot be used to proclaim the use of these products dangerous, since there are so many other sources of parabens within our environment.

So, I am undecided really. Having spent quite some time scanning the ingredient lists of UK beauty products, there are definitely beauty brands in the UK which avoid some of these so-called dangerous chemicals. These include Good Things and some very high-end products like Avène  and La Roche-Porsay. However, it does not seem to have reached the levels of the US market where television adverts mention the ingredients (or lack thereof); we seem to hear more about things being ‘Organic’  or ‘97% natural’, which could mean that the other 3% is bleach after all.

I’m not a scientist and, as far as I can see, the jury is still out on whether these chemicals really do cause us harm directly. Is this just a case of ‘time will tell’, an approach which ought to cause concern when we consider that the PVCs in cling film, for example, were once thought harmless. I do have a sneaking suspicion that the US marketers are pandering to consumer concerns rather than addressing any scientific need, though. It’s no coincidence that the brands which use fewer of these chemicals seem to be more expensive.

What do you think? Do you worry about the ingredients in your shampoo? Or do you feel more inclined to stick with a brand you’re familiar with and can afford, rather than lose sleep over whether there are risks?

Time will tell, I suppose.