Casualties of a Smarter Planet

By Dave DeLuca

ToxicTownToxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks, a book by OSU anthropology professor Peter Little, gives the sordid details of IBM’s first home. The town was Endicott, New York circa 1924. The promise of industrialization turned a tiny village into a thriving town. Until, that is, America’s first tech giant outgrew its birthplace. In 2002 the original plant was sold to local investors. An economic downturn followed for Endicott as its chief employer headed for greener pastures. Even as residents faced the realities of deindustrialization, they were to be struck with a second punch to the gut.

Scientists discovered a large underground chemical plume in their midst. Toxic gases were being released into homes and offices on over 300 acres near the plant. The pollution was caused by tons of industrial solvents dumped down IBM drains as well as several major spills and leaks of liquid cleaning agents.

IBM has worked closely with local officials to repair the ecological damage done, but residents are slowly realizing the hidden costs of the crisis. Endicott has become stigmatized, and its housing market may never recover.

“Readers might look at IBM’s ‘Smarter Planet’ tagline in a different light. Just where are we going with corporate power in this country?” Little asks. The campaign he’s referring to is one IBM mounted to raise technology and sustainability questions and provide innovation, like their products, as a solution to the world’s problems, such as hunger, traffic and… er… pollution.

Little has a connection to the city of Endicott, having attended Binghamton University, which is closer to Endicott than OSU is to Albany. As an anthropology student, he became fascinated by the way local residents dealt with their challenges. Little conducted an investigation of the community through interviews and research. Many residents are former employees of IBM, and were hesitant to speak ill of the company. But even as they drew pensions, their town filled with large neighborhoods of Section 8 housing. What was once a town of techies has become increasingly impoverished.

Little moved across the country to Corvallis and Oregon State, but the story of Endicott stayed with him. “It’s a topic that consumed my thinking life from 2002 to 2004.” Ten years later, the story has at last been told.

Peter C. Little, PhD is an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology School of Language, Culture, and Society at Oregon State University. Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks can be purchased at or through NYU Press.