Let’s talk about Steve Jobs. No need to cringe- this really isn’t an article about Steve Jobs. Alright. It is. We all saw the enormous displays of grief on the internet immediately following his death. It was predictable enough. Afterwards came the media’s irritating self-reflection period, with outlets like CNN posting cringe-worthy stories almost seriously debating whether Jobs was a saint. That was predictable as well. But something else happened too. A groundswell of bloggers saw the occasion as an opportunity to call Apple out on the horrific working conditions at the infamous Foxconn, one of Apple’s main manufacturers, located in Shenzhen, China.
It’s almost like he wasn’t a saint
To be sure, some of the smarter members of the commentariat were ‘onto’ Apple before Jobs passed away. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Mike Daisey’s theatrical monologue of Steve Job’s life, took a hard look at what impact on the world Steve Jobs truly had. Part of it is blood welling up under his keys, to use one reviewer’s phrase.
Forbes magazine was critical as well, publishing a piece the day before Jobs’ death (hereafter referred to as “J-Day”) urging Apple and Amazon to move more quickly in stamping out bad actors in their supply chains.
However, the days following J-Day saw a much greater amount of commentary about poor working conditions in Apple’s manufacturing zones overseas. There was a pent-up amount of anger under the surface that was repressed only while Jobs lived. But no longer.
Steven Thrasher immediately pounced with the claim that Foxconn suicides were Jobs’ dark legacy. Kathleen McLaughlin of Global Post called Apple out the next day for cases of toxic poisoning among other offenses in Wintek, one of its supplier’s factories, and Yahoo’s Daily Ticker called for readers to write to Apple CEO Tim Cook to complain about labor abuses.
Where was all this criticism before? A lot of people appear interested in this issue for the first time. It’s stuck around far longer than the usual chaff of the 24-hour news-cycle. There’s an old joke which is applicable here. A homeowner is talking to a contractor about remodeling his bathroom. The homeowner asks what his options are. The contractor replies, “Well, you can have it good, fast, or cheap. Pick any two.” Consumers in wealthy countries like the U.S. have gotten used to the idea that companies, particularly electronics companies, will always be able to somehow deliver all three qualities: good, fast and cheap. The confluence of all three together pushed that criticism to the periphery, at least for a time.
Consumer electronics are incomparably better for Steve Jobs being involved with them. That’s not in dispute. But it was with the iPad that Apple mixed that third ingredient of ‘cheapness’ in. Don’t argue with me. The $500 baseline price was a total shocker in 2010. (I remember during Jobs’ introduction of the iPad all of us at work were betting each other how expensive it would be. $1,700 seemed about right.) With all of the competing tablets introduced since then at even lower prices, the sea has changed. People expect these damn touch-screen things to be good, fast, and cheap.
Of course, there’s some level of cognitive dissonance in this. Everyone feels a conflict between the desire to buy cheap merchandise, and the horror stories that continually flow out of the countries where that merchandise is made, detailing the human cost of perfectly blending ‘fast, good and cheap’.
In the post J-Day world, we’re seeing an interesting thing: The cognitive dissonance of ‘fast, good, cheap’ is now too loud to ignore. Heretofore, suicides by Chinese factory workers occurred in some fantasy land that we vaguely remember reading about in some do-gooder magazine. The politicians all raved about free-trade, and that was good enough for us. But it’s not a fantasy land anymore. It has a name, a name which was thrust into the hive-mind when Steve Jobs died: Foxconn.
The time is near when Apple and other tech companies will suffer bad PR from their business practices because the man in the street can tell you in two clipped syllables exactly where Chinese workers are dying at their benches after 84-hour work weeks. It is happening at Foxconn. The computer I’m writing with did not come from some place I read about in the Wall Street Journal but whose name I can’t seem to recall at the moment. It came from Foxconn. Apple, Sony, Microsoft and all the rest don’t use off-shore workers that are probably treated badly but we can safely ignore because it’s lumped in with all the other sob-stories we hear about like AIDS, polar-bears and Mississippi.
They use Foxconn. Foxconn. Foxconn. Burn it into that brain.
Those darn journalists
And the shit is starting to fall. The New York Times published a massive critical review (Jan, 2012) of Apple’s overseas labor practices. The article, relying on many interviews including from former Apple executives, workers at Foxconn, Labor Department employees and watchdog groups details regular and egregious violations including underage workers, falsified records, multiple lethal explosions from aluminum dust, and to top it off, over one hundred deaths from exposure to toxic chemicals.
Apple’s culpability is explicit:
The piece prompted a platitude-heavy e-mail from Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to all of his employees, and pointedly failed to answer even a single allegation that the Times story made.
Instead, he wrote that “What we will not do—and never have done—is stand still or turn a blind eye to problems in our supply chain. On this you have my word.”
Tim Cook better keep those platitudes close by. Two weeks prior, Bloomberg and others reported that about 150 workers at Foxconn threatened mass suicide, and Google searches of the term ‘Apple’ now return allegations of worker abuse as readily as they return rumors of the next iPhone or iPad.
It seems that for now the leaders of the tech world are content to play PR whack-a-mole and hope that the Kardashians take back the unwelcome limelight. However, it seems like the lid is permanently blown off this problem, and it’s either going to get solved or metastasize. But people have already gotten used to the unholy mix of ‘good, fast, cheap’. What to do?
We need Slow Electronics
The Slow Food movement is a philosophy and international non-profit organization that tries to preserve regional food production, and ensure that food is produced locally, and sustainably. The name ‘Slow Food’ is supposed to draw a line in the sand against the concept of ‘fast food’. Food produced ‘slowly’ preserves cultural differences which would otherwise be rubbed out by the homogenizing forces of international business.
It has tangible benefits as well. It shores up local, stable employment of food producers and hedges against the inevitable troughs of the business cycle. Slow food provides work (and food) even when a wavering in real-estate prices of a suburb in California triggers a collapse of loan derivatives which brings the global banking system to its knees.
As an organization, Slow Food began from its roots in Rome in 1986, and by 1989 a formal manifesto of the Slow Food movement was signed in Paris, France by delegates from 15 countries. Today it has offices in Switzerland, Germany, the U.S., France, the U.K., Japan and Chile. The organization has over 100,000 members and 1,300 local chapters around the world. They conduct education programs, foster slow-food markets and organize networks of small-scale farmers. Read about it yourself: http://www.slowfood.com/
This digression has a point. All of the arguments about fast food vs. slow food apply to electronics. And maybe more. We need a Slow Electronics movement. We need fast electronics that are produced slowly, with local jobs and local workers. Just like Slow Food, such a thing would create a reservoir of employment (Skilled, high-paying employment) which would be robust against the boom-bust cycle of the economy.
Apple has got to take the reins and talk people out of ‘good, fast, cheap’. We should settle for ‘good’ and ‘fast’, because ‘cheap’ isn’t even remotely cheap. Chinese workers lose their fingers while American workers languish in unemployment lines. Both ends of that deal are bad. But the ‘Slow’ philosophy is one that Apple could really run with, and others would surely follow.
It’s not crazy to conjecture that in the foreseeable future, employees at Apple stores will politely ask you if you would like to buy a domestically-produced (“Slow”) iPad or a “conventional” iPad. Naturally, the “Slow” one will cost more. However, one of the main reasons for Apple’s success is its ability to market the intangible benefits of its products. “It’s magical”, “It’s stylish”, “It just feels good to use it”. They could easily add, “It supports jobs in your own country and carries no blood-cost.” Obviously they could find a better word for that. But one already exists. Slow.
But you just said there aren’t any, except Earth- Earth of the past.
Yes, Doctor. That is exactly what I said.