A new iPad, the same iEthics

March 9, 2012

Several days after the launch of the new iPad 3, HD, or whatever it’s called, we all know about it’s blazing 4G capabilities, including its ability to be a hotspot, carrier permitting, of course. We know about its Retina display, which makes the painful, insufferable scourge of image pixelization a thing of the past. We know about Infinity Blade. We know that to pack all this in, Apple’s designers had to let out the new iPad’s aluminum waist to accommodate some unfortunate but really quite microscopic weight gain. We know the iPad’s battery life is still amazing, and its price point is altogether unchanged. We know Apple has adopted a cunning new strategy of putting the previous-generation iPad, as it did with the iPhone 4, on a sort of permanent sale, to scoop up the low end of the high-end market. (We wonder if this was Steve Jobs’s last decree or Tim Cook’s first.) We know a lot about the iPad.

But what we don’t know: How many of Foxconn’s nearly 100,000 employees will harm themselves, intentionally or inadvertently — or their families or loved ones — in the manufacture of it? And will the developed world ever acknowledge the dark side of these truly transformative technologies, like the iPad, or will we continue to tell ourselves fables to explain away the havoc our addictions wreak on the developing world? Is a device really magic if to pull a rabbit out of a hat, you have to kill a disappearing dove?

Those of us who have been technology journalists have long been subjected to the cult of Steve Jobs’s Apple, and those of us who are fans of technology are mostly well aware of the stark elegance and extreme usability — even the words seem inadequate — that come with using, let alone experiencing, Apple products. But the rumblings about Apple’s manufacturing processes started years ago, and the recent New York Times series on the ignobility of Foxconn as an employer blew a hole in the side of that particular ship of willful ignorance. Few Apple consumers can claim not to understand the human sacrifice behind their glowing screens — the death, diseases, exhaustion, mental and emotional stress, and superhuman expectations placed upon the workers who bring these magic devices to life. It’s not just in the papers — Mike Daisey’s This American Life podcast exposé on Foxconn and Apple is a mere click away, and most mainstream media have given at least passing coverage to the working conditions reflected in the Gorilla Glass on our devices.

Update, 3/16/2012: Mike Daisey’s account of working conditions at Foxconn for This American Life has been retracted by the radio show. Other reporting linked to here describing similar episodes and working conditions has not been retracted as of this update.

To be sure, Apple isn’t the first company to exploit a developing society’s cheap labor. That’s a tradition that proudly goes back hundreds of years, arguably to the first triangle trades, or perhaps to Roman times. Maybe things have come full circle for China, and this is just another version of Marco Polo and the Silk Road. But there’s something insidious about a near-perfect system where the only factor beyond design is the human one. (Especially when those humans decide to jump off buildings.)

Apple has given more than lip service to the problem, and worker suicides appear to be down. But when will American consumers care how their iPads are built? When will they be told how many human hands had to touch the elegant machine, including the last pair that wiped off all the fingerprints with powerful solvents, and how many yuans were put in those hands at the end of the workweek? With technology taking an ever greater place in our culture and our society, when do we consumers begin to demand ethical technology, the way some of us now demand ethical meat and ethical investing?

The apps that run on these devices — not just iPhones and iPads, but Kindle Fires and Samsung Galaxy Tabs — enable social connection and sharing as never before. Communication across time, distance and borders has become free, or just pennies a minute. But few, if any, apps enable any sort of social organizing around things more important than discounted lunches or happy hours. In fact Groupon founder Andrew Mason famously abandoned his social-change startup to focus on the far more popular idea of building a coupon site. We like — love — the social tooling our devices allow us, as long as they cater to our essential selfishness as consumers.

We’re not alone in this. Chinese car purchases are booming as hundreds of millions of citizens there race to join the global middle class. Somewhere along the way, the West decided it was time to start passing on to emerging economies, especially ones with huge populations, the same warnings about global warming and resource depletion that we have been hearing for years. But why would any Chinese deny herself the chance at a new car, the very symbol of economic freedom around the world? And by what rationale would a Westerner, even an eco-conscious one, dare to presume he has the right to request such a sacrifice? (The irony is that the car as status symbol is getting to be out of date thanks to all the iPads the Chinese have made for the West.)

If the U.S., after decades of geopolitical havoc, still can’t develop an energy policy less reliant on conflict-zone oil, we don’t stand a chance of improving conditions for Chinese workers in technology factories, no matter what sanctions or misplaced scolding we dare levy on China. Nor does the conventional wisdom say that that is the right place for government to be interceding. But what if that’s wrong? If Foxconn were forced to pay workers more, increasing the cost of production and lowering Apple’s profit margins, wouldn’t that reopen technology manufacturing jobs to U.S. workers, the ones that Steve Jobs told Barack Obama were “gone,” never to return? Might U.S. consumers accept a higher price for their magic devices, if that price also put some money back in domestic workers’ pockets?

There are a lot of questions in this column because there are a lot of questions around ethical technology. It’s a subject to which few of us have devoted serious thought, and yet the knock-on effects could reshape the global economy, just as globalization has over the last two decades.

Here’s where I admit I have definitely researched this column and others on my iPhone — and only then because I didn’t have my iPad handy. And though I have a feeling that neither device will be my last, I’m skipping this newest Apple generation. I hope the next time Tim Cook takes the California stage with a device that would make Steve Jobs proud, he tells us something about the status of Apple’s 100,000 subcontractors in China. That would make the rest of us a little prouder, too.

UPDATE 8:18 p.m.: Apple provided the following comment to Reuters about its and its contractors’ labor practices: “Every year Apple inspects more factories, going deeper into the supply chain and raising the bar for our suppliers. In 2011 we conducted 229 audits at supplier facilities around the world and reported their progress on Apple.com.” There is also a third-party audit being conducted of their supply chain.

PHOTO: Local and mainland Chinese university students, in the role of Foxconn workers, lie on the floor as they act out being chemically poisoned during a street drama in Hong Kong, May 7, 2011. REUTERS/Bobby Yip


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Really? Chinese labor has been the same for a hundred years, suddenly everybody cares? I bet half of the complainers dont realize their expensive clothes and shoes are made in much worse conditions. Hypocrites.

Posted by capeman29 | Report as abusive

Here’s what i don’t understand. Why is it that Apple receives so much scrutiny in the media when dozens of other big name companies use Foxconn workers in exactly the same way ?

The problem is systemic, and yet Apple is the one company who gets 99% of the flak.

Posted by Sarngate | Report as abusive

As one that has actually lived in the ‘developing world’ and seen first hand the kind of poverty that Americans are utterly unaccustomed to, I find this type of willful blindness to the realities of life in other countries frustrating.

At the surface, the author aligning himself with the plight of the Foxconn workers is admirable and thoroughly do-gooder we should all want to stand up and clap for him. I understand that the conditions that they are subjected to are awful and something we would never allow ourselves or our own children to be placed under. However, and this is where the willful blindness comes in, there is no regard for what kind of life that rest the of the working poor in China (or most other developing countries) lives under. While many the West appease their collective guilt of using their shiny new toys by singling out the company that made them, the reality is that there are thousands (millions?) of people that would see the opportunity to work in such “terrible” conditions as a huge step up from their current situation.

Where is the moral outrage for poverty stricken who live in far worse conditions? The reality is the majority of the wealthy world are simply uninterested in helping. It has been that way for long time and no passing phase of guilt will make material difference for those who could truly use your sympathies.

Posted by cdanvers | Report as abusive

Gotta start somewhere. We who buy this technology need to exert pressure on Apple to do better! They call themselves an American company – we vote with our dollars. Hated hearing new head Tim Cook say (I’m paraphrasing) Americans are more concerned with having the fastest newest cutting edge tech than they are with human rights. Hummm…
Are we that cold hearted? Don’t think so.
When President Obama asked Steve Jobs what it would take to get iPhones made by
American workers in this country Jobs said: those jobs are never coming back. Steve Jobs is no hero to me.

Posted by Anonymous | Report as abusive

Why against Apple more than against other companies?
Well it’s easy, because Apple has sold the lie of being sustainable, more eco-friendly, more human.
And many has bought into such a lie.
The only criticizm is that honestly many companies have been in the past under the scrutiny of the media, but have continued their unsustainable habits.
I personally find Status Symbols a sign of social violence and discrimination.

Posted by Keynote | Report as abusive

The facts are that a large percentage of retail products we in the US and other OECD nations consume are produced in conditions similar to or worse than than Foxconn. The closer you get to “the ground” the worse it gets. Ive seen some things in the mining and agriculture industries that are pretty humbling. The issues of inequality and globalization are so much bigger than Apple or Foxconn, and there are no easy answers. So, boycott Apple if it makes you feel better, but just remember the whole system that creates your (and my) standard of living is built on the same brutal reality that life sucks for a lot of people. All you, as an individual can do is try to help as many people as you can. If we all did that, it may not eliminate poverty altogether, but the world would be a better place.

Posted by sean28924 | Report as abusive

Are you suggesting that because it has been going on for hundreds of years, or that everyone else does it, that we should continue to accept this?

Perhaps because Apple gets the greatest media attention. If one wants to address this problem wouldn’t it be obvious to choose the start with a company like Apple?
The root to the problem is that our civilization, just as the Roman empire was, is based upon overconsumption among a minority of people only made possible by undermining the rest. It is a disease.

As a Scandinavian it would make me proud to buy an Ipad3 manufactured in America and especially if it was manufactured under good or excellent working conditions.
I would gladly pay 50-100USD more, despite my tight budget as a student.
The point is that I am not the only one and Kony2012 is a good example of that. You can say much about the campaign, but in the ind it is about caring and acting upon true empathy for people across the planet that one might never meet or even see on a photo. It is about walking the talk, collectively and showing compassion.

Posted by referat747 | Report as abusive

I have an 8 year old son who is constantly bemoaning that 98% of the items we buy are made in China. He doesn’t understand. I try to explain but it gets into a level of conversation that is over his head. Basically, I tell him, it costs less money to make things in China which means you can buy it for less. He gets that, but the bigger challenge that comes with inexpensive labor is lost on him. We have come up with a “treasure hunt” game to try and find items to purchase that are not made in China… or Vietnam or India… It isn’t easy…

Apple is an American idol – they have are beloved for the innovative culture they have built, the products they bring to market before consumers even know they want them, and for delivering a brilliant branding case study for business everywhere to admire. As such, they have a valuable market opportunity to drive a cultural shift that condones the kinds of practices at Foxconn and instead expect – or even demand – ethical practices. If Apple can do it, and drive success, others will follow – just look at how they’ve driven consumer technology adoption and the onslaught of cultural and business shifts that change has influenced.

You could argue that because of their market leadership position they should live up to a moral responsibility to choose an ethical solution, but, then again, business and ethics don’t always go hand-in-hand – especially when one gets in the way of revenue generation.

Posted by Hwilliams | Report as abusive

Talking about poor working conditions, and wanting to help, is all well and good, but I think that if you ask any of those impoverished workers for their opinion, they will tell you that A job is better than no job at all.
I think that sitting on our couches, in our comfy modern houses, we are (with sarcasm) well qualified to discuss reform and revolution since we are not the ones that will experience the pain of this change, which we cause.
Don’t get me wrong; I AM all for supporting better life through out the world. But just ask yourselves, how much good are we doing if we attack the very companies that provide people with the food and drink that keeps them alive? I believe there is this old saying that goes, “don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”

And, if we do raise the salaries of the workers and improve the working conditions to international standards, than as you say: we WILL return jobs to the United States. On one hand this would/could seem to be a good idea, but if our mission was to improve the lives of the poor “3rd world” workers, than it will actually hurt them, as they will have no where to work. Any impoverished worker will tell you: given the choice, they would prefer to work a horrid job rather than allow their families to die of hunger. Needless to say though, Reform CAN BE GOOD, but only if all of the parties involved benefit.
The problem in over seas jobs isn’t their below-average working conditions, but rather the fact that it’s impossible to consider people as “rich” without comparing them to someone who’s “poor.” Likewise, we cannot have a DISTINCT upper class without a DISTINCT middle class, because otherwise they would be one and the same. And we cannot have a “middle” classwith per say without “lower” and “upper” classes to sandwich it on either side.
People are rich only in comparison. I’m sure that if we compare those factory workers to the Feudal Ages, we would find that they are relatively well-off. But, by the same logic, if we compare them to ourselves, sitting on plush sofas and watching TV while we chow down on some good chocolate pudding, than we will know that they are relatively poor.
It’s all well and good to call for reform and social improvement, but only as long as we remember (and recognize) that the problem isn’t overseas jobs or appalling job markets, or even sickening working conditions, but rather the system itself. “Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” we would say, but we can agree with the author on his point that we all feed into this system and nurture it daily and hourly, and even when we sleep on our soft factory-made beds with our little night-lights, while others sleep in rat-infested flea-ridden filth.
But how do we fix this? you may ask. And I will tell you that the only way we can fix this, the only way we can erase poverty, the only way to save our selves —as The Human Race— is to recognize the fact that as long as someone is “better”-off, someone else will have to be “worce”-off by the very definition.
As long as someone is rich, someone will have to be poor. And there cannot be a middle without the outlying sides. And only perfect equality can be equal. Middle, lower, upper, kings, queens, celebrities, the rich, the poor, social classes, are all inherently not equal. Only the purest Equality can ever be fair, and it is to this end that we as Americans have strived for decades and centuries, from Martin Luther King Junior the Founding Fathers to anyone who has ever stood up to protest against the unfair.
But this is a Dream that we can never reach, because it’s anarchy AND communism, combined. And we all know how much money we spent to get rid of those two ideas. I DO NOT intend to advertise either of them, but just think of how much good we could have done for the world, and even for our own jobless citizens, if we used that money for more important things and improved conditions for people here AND else where.
To put it shortly, the world is not as simple as it appears, if we push here, than something else will pull there. Fixing the conditions at one company somewhere (no matter how big or small it is) is not going to change the world. If we want to save the world, we must not only change the way we look at life, but also reinvent our place in it. And That is the ultimate goal, and I believe the author of this article will agree on this.
Peace friends,

Posted by Vlad3 | Report as abusive

If we bring such externalities to any project, few may survive. Whatever Apple does is common to the world at large and Apple does a little better than the rest. In that event, suggesting whatever has been in the article is so out of place unless the wish is for the whole planet in general. That does not require Apple to be singled out. That said, China has positioned itself as a country with capable workforce that available in 100,000 at one place, something that India has little capability to do what with its appalling educational standards and the leadership that cannot tell an Apple from a Mango or Lemon of technology. Any country that can think of giving its children a $10 laptop made by Indians and then waste several years trying to make it, not even able to understand that 1: electronics is a competitive industry and only way to differentiate is by value as if you play the cost game you get what you get for the price point; 2: US makes the technologies and unless you can create new technologies better than the US you cannot start a new game and 3: China is the cheapest and yet a quality producer in the world and no has bettered it just yet.. So India has a thinking deficit and China does provide its workers what its capable of. Its also true that most people in the world will not work as the Chinese do. So its a much larger question. Not just of rewarding the companies that make Apple products simply $1 per product extra and insist it goes to the worker will mean $100M for 400,000 workers or $250 per worker. Raising it by $10 will mean every worker gets $2500 extra. This can be given in Apple stocks and that alone can reduce the pain considerably. The pain dues to personal or social challenges may be dealt with differently and separately. So there are ways to address teh question but not the way the writer seems to desire.

Posted by shantanu1 | Report as abusive

We love Apple’s rebuttal: “Every year Apple inspects more factories, going deeper into the supply chain and raising the bar for our suppliers.”

What a hunk of steaming corporate PR department BS that is. “Raising the bar for our suppliers.” What exactly does that mean, other than, “it’s their fault, not ours?” Raise the bar indeed.

Apple is the target here because they’re such self-promoting cool hipsters, out to change the world with insanely this and incredible that, that shipping so many jobs abroad where OSHA wouldn’t dare venture shows their hypocrisy. They’re really not so cool.

Let’s face it, an mp3 player saved Apple from oblivion 10 years ago, a right-place, right-time miracle, and they strut around now like they’re God’s gift to the tech world. But nothing they produce makes Americans more productive. And, with $100 billion in the bank now on the back of their fat margins and millions of Americans unemployed, they’re a reasonable target. Smalera might go over the top a little here, but not much.


Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

@capeman29 Yes, but these companies have never claimed such high levels of investigation and strict rules. Also claiming that they do not tolerate this treatment. When in fact their policy they publicly advertise has a zero tolerance for mistreatment of their employees and that they terminate their relationship with them if they violate those terms. FOXCON is still one of the biggest manufactures for Apple and there is numerous counts of mistreatment and outragous incentive to overwork their workers. FOXCON IS STILL WORKING AS AN APPLE CONTRACTOR regardless of Apples “so-called” supplier responsibility http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibil ity/
But it still has not stopped this treatment, abuse and problem.

Posted by MarcusP | Report as abusive

I just want to add to the above that if we were just a little more humble, much less greedy and decisively more holy than the world and many human lives would be better.

Posted by Vlad3 | Report as abusive

The view must spectacular from way up there on your high horse.

Apple’s manufacturing practices (aka everyone’s manufacturing practices) must be the cause de’jour. I guess I missed the meeting. Allow me to recommend a schedule for the remainder of the year.

April – High sodium diets
May – Pharmaceutical patents
June – Excessive use of sodium nitrate fertilizer
July – Deforestation/Wetlands conservation
August – GMOs/Monsanto
September – Lobbyists
October – Hedge funds and banks
November – Affirmative action
December – Government subsidies

*If a drilling accident occurs, I vote we will immediately shift the current month to hydraulic fracturing. Perhaps we can incorporate tar sands into that too.

**I realize that we all just switched over to Aspergers from ADHD but I’m always open for a new developmental disorder too.

Posted by CapitalismSays | Report as abusive

Perhaps when we see a rise in prices something is afoot.

Posted by opuntia | Report as abusive