Topic: Science & Technology

Flaming Laptop Ethics
(7/19/2006)

Dell is reeling from the public reaction to videotape showing one of its ubiquitous laptops exploding into flame at a conference in Osaka. Pending ongoing tests and investigations, there is every reason to believe that the incident was a freak…perhaps a defective battery of the sort that Dell recalled in 2005. But in the age of the World Wide Web, your worst moment can be caught on tape and used to define you to the world. Now owners of Dell laptops, many already peeved at the company for a recent decline in its customer service, wonder if they are toting around time bombs. Prospective purchasers of laptops, meanwhile, may find reason to purchase a brand that hasn't exploded, even once.

By any standard, this is unfair to Dell. But the unfairness has to be attributed to the vagaries of life, and not to those who put the video of the exploding computer on the internet. A technology website initially circulated the video, and it was responsible to do so. An exploding laptop is news, and news that any Dell owner, past, present or future, would want to know about. The fact that the video is "inherently prejudicial," as a judge might describe inflammatory evidence calculated to make a jury react emotionally rather than rationally, is not something that the websites have to consider, or should. There are legitimate concerns raised by even one such accident, and the fact that this one happened to be caught on tape makes it more than likely that there have been others like it. As the British site ZDNet noted:

…As batteries become ever more powerful, the amount of energy stored in smaller and smaller spaces keeps increasing. So does their ability to liberate all that energy in short order. A typical laptop pack can hold around 60Wh, which doesn't sound very much. Deliver that power in 30 seconds, though, and you're looking at 7kW. You really don't want that landing in your lap. When a lithium ion battery goes off, it can do so with a vengeance. A short circuit within a cell can see the temperature soar to 600°C in seconds, with hot, caustic material pouring from the end like a Roman candle. Although cells are designed with multiple safety features, none can withstand temperatures like that, so if one cell goes, the rest in the pack follow in a chain reaction. A laptop pack can have six or even nine cells, which can make for quite a firework display. Statistics are hard to come by, but figures from the US mobile phone industry suggest around one catastrophic battery failure per year for every quarter of a million users. These can be due to power-supply malfunction, counterfeit battery modules, physical damage to the battery pack or plain old component failure -- all of which are less likely in higher-quality, better-controlled laptop designs. But with 50 million laptops shipped last year and the two-billionth GSM user recently connected, the total number of incidents worldwide may conceivably be in the hundreds. Even though the risk to any individual user is minimal, it's much higher than any quantifiable risk from radiation -- and liable to trigger the sort of panic which sways politically-sensitive regulators. There's another term for a small device capable of producing vast amounts of energy very quickly: a bomb. One incident on board a plane, and the world of business travel will change beyond recognition: one hint that terrorists were thinking about doing this deliberately, and that change could happen in the blink of an eye. What work could you do overseas without your laptop or mobile phone? 

Global circulation of bad moments captured on video, audio, or e-mail may not be ethical when it serves no purpose other than to embarrass someone for amusement or to score cheap political points. The Scoreboard has noted such examples as the sleeping cable repairman, Michael Moore's gleeful use of footage in "Fahrenheit 911" that showed the former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz licking his comb, and the media's malicious use of the "Dean scream" tape to make Howard Dean look like a lunatic, effectively sinking his presidential bid. Taking an insensitive or uncivil personal e-mail from another and sending it on a world wide tour to humiliate the writer is similarly unethical.

An exploding laptop, however, deserves to be publicized, even if it creates disproportionate public relations and marketing problems for Dell. If our worst moments are bad enough, those who have to interact with us have a stake in knowing about them.

Should video become available that show a cable repairman, a Deputy Secretary of Defense, or a presidential candidate bursting into flames, The Scoreboard pledges to support any website that posts it.

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