A new iPad, the same iEthics
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