That was my experience on encountering Slaveryfootprint.org, a website that helps you calculate how many slaves are currently working for you. It adds up the stuff you have, and then figures out how many people were forced to dig, assemble, or carry it for you—against their will. It’s a startling example of how the Net can make the invisible, visible. In the real world, we just hold the iPhone or use an appliance; the web can allow us to see all the human time that has been packed into its creation.
The Internet—in stark contrast to media that went before it—helps break down the barriers of time and space that kept us removed from the people and places exploited by our bad habits. Though entirely virtual, the Net nonetheless makes us more, not less, aware of what has long been too far away to care about in any real way.
Now, anyone who has read my stuff knows I am a fan of real life. I am convinced that real people engaging in the real world enjoy a level of connection and a breadth of communication unavailable to people using text, video, or whatever might be coming from Silicon Valley this century or next. But we are nonetheless connected to many people quite intimately even though they are thousands of miles away. I'm not just talking about relatives who have moved far away, but strangers whose lives are invisibly intertwined with our own—particularly in a civilization with giant conglomerates and global supply chains.
In fact, as I understand our moment in history, we are on the brink of a level of connectedness and awareness we haven't enjoyed in close to a thousand years. Except while our connectedness in the past derived from being in the same place, our connectedness today is based on being in the same time.
The last great era of connectedness for most of us in the West was the Late Middle Ages. It was then that we invented the bazaar—the freewheeling marketplace where people traded goods, stories, and ideas. Everyone gathered on market days to procure produce, gossip, and even spiritual truths and romantic love. The bazaar was a local happening, and bonded us by place. We knew our pastor, our miller, our blacksmith, and our farmer personally and in person. We knew whose products were the best, as well as how our producers treated their workers and neighbors.
The bazaar was so successful both commercially and culturally that it threatened the wealthiest and most powerful members of the aristocracy and the Church. Back in feudal times, lords enjoyed total dominion over the peasants. With the rise of this new merchant class of connected traders and people, that dominion was slipping away. New laws were written that made peer-to-peer transaction and small businesses illegal or at least untenable. Chartered monopolies—or what we now think of as corporations—took over, and the Industrial Age began.
The opposite of the local bazaar, the Industrial Age marketplace, was about distance. Rugs woven in India, spices gathered in China, and diamonds mined in Africa made their way to England, Holland, and eventually the United States. Consumers saw only the products, and never the processes behind them. The former bond between producer and consumer was replaced by the brand: A picture of a tiger, Quaker, or elf stood in for the worker and factory actually producing the cereal, oatmeal, or cookie.
As most of us know by now, the Net changes the relationship of consumers to the stuff we buy. "Transparency" is no longer a strategy a company chooses, but a reality every business must come to accept. In some very real ways, we are brought back to the bazaar—not as a single place, but as an everyplace.
In other words, the Internet may not bring us back into physical proximity with the people mining and making our things, but it does bring them into our present awareness. And so through SlaveryFootprint.org’s simple survey, anyone can find out just how much slave labor went into making the cell phones, cars, crops, energy, and everything else they use. There are currently over 27 million slaves worldwide, and this website lets a modern consumer find out how many of them we currently "own." Meanwhile,FreeTheSlaves.net gives visitors the opportunity to get involved in the modern abolition movement directly—either by simply spreading the word through Twitter and Facebook, raising money, or direct action. TheYesMen.org have been creating similar awareness of the human toll of forced labor through Internet pranks, such as the faked apology by Dow for the tragedy in Bhopal, which cost the company millions in stock value as investors scrambled to determine whether Dow was really going to offer reparations to survivors.
Instead of helping camouflage the distant labor behind our consumer lifestyles, interactive media helps reveal it. It's a frightening prospect: Somewhere far away, a child is making bricks, picking sugar cane, or dying in a mine for your next house, candy, or iPad. At this very moment.
Okay, come to think of it, this form of presentism may be a bit shocking, after all. But it is also an opportunity to begin to take responsibility for the many injustices that a few centuries of industrialized disconnection have fostered. We may not all be in the same place, but we are sharing the same moment. Digitally as well as actually.
[Image: Flickr user David Goehring]