Hawking, the boycott and the Israeli CPU

Picture of Stephen Hawking, an elderly white man in a wheelchair, with his daughter Lucy Hawking, a white woman wearing a grey tight-fitting top and black trousers, with a picture of the earth on a black background behind him.Last week Professor Stephen Hawking pulled out of a conference in Israel, reportedly as part of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions on the grounds of it operating an Apartheid-type regime against its Palestinian subjects. The decision prompted a number of Israeli sympathisers to reassess their views of Hawking from being a genius who triumphed over adversity to being a “stupid cripple” who should hurry up and die, or similar, but one Israeli law firm recommended that Hawking change the processor he uses in his tablet to communicate, namely the Intel Core i7 which is developed at an Intel base in Israel. There are a number of reasons why the demand represents the ignorance and bias of those making it.

The Intel Core i7 is a standard PC processor which runs standard PC software, and this chip architecture dominates the computer market except for most smartphones and tablets (which use ARM-designed chips) and some legacy server systems (which run on RISC chips designed by IBM, HP and others, now mostly defunct or taken over, in the 80s and 90s but which are largely being phased out). Its dominance is not due to its technical superiority but because of the dominance of the ‘Wintel’ hardware and software stack on the desktop from the 90s onwards, and the ‘Lintel’ stack in the server market. The last consumer computer maker to use other processors besides Intel’s (Apple) switched from IBM and Motorola PowerPC processors in the early 2000s to Intel, because IBM could not produce energy-efficient 64-bit processors for laptops. The latest major advance was in fact conducted by AMD in the early 2000s, which pioneered 64-bit PC technology before Intel, but Intel took that technology and ran with it and now makes the leading 64-bit PC processors.

I did a brief investigation of links between other chip makers and Israel in the early 2000s when looking into buying my Mac, after reading pro-boycott material that suggested using AMD processors which were, then, superior to Intel’s Pentium and discovered that AMD in fact also had investments in Israel. They invest there because it has a highly-educated population with a high proportion of immigrants from the USA and Europe who speak English or other European languages, and which has a substantial interest in developing high-tech security products. It’s virtually impossible to use any computer technology without using some that has links to Israel. This blog uses WordPress, which itself depends on PHP whose lead developer, Zeev Suraski, lives in Israel (although nobody has to pay to use it).

Of course, there are serious ethical objections to the political regimes in several of the other countries which contribute to the cheap technology we all enjoy, as well as the other cheap consumer goods — the lack of political freedom and rights to organise as workers in China, for example, and the minerals used in smartphones that come from war-ravaged parts of Africa, which often passes through the hands of armies which plunder and rape local populations. Some, like George Monbiot, will not use this technology for that reason, but George Monbiot is quite able to speak and to use his hands to type and write, and able to cycle so as to hand-deliver his missives if he so wishes — he is not almost completely paralysed like Hawking, or bedridden and unable to use a laptop or desktop computer and thus dependent on a smartphone or tablet as are some disabled people that I have read and written about here in the past.

Hawking has in fact visited Israel four times, and has visited a number of other countries with poor human rights records including China and Iran. Those countries are repressive across the board; Israel runs an Apartheid-type regime backed with a fair amount of dehumanising and racism which I have personally seen plenty of on pro-Israel blogs over the years. Its boycotting is entirely justified. This would not be the first time that such people have reminded critics of their racist policies of what they have done for them: I recall hearing a recording of Pik Botha, a minister under Apartheid in South Africa, telling the British that they had no business telling South Africans what to do with the natives there as South Africans had fought for them in the war. If Israel wants to be regarded as part of the “western club”, it should expect criticism of its open discrimination and brazen racism.

Image source: Wikipedia.

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