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Shiny Objects

This past week, I like many others, relished in the news of Apple’s latest addition to it’s iPad product line. I’ve been on an iPad 1 for some time so I was comfortable and resolute in my immediate pre-order purchase of the latest iPad. Firmly into the 21st Century we are now walking hand in hand with the most mind boggling innovation cycle in the history of man combined with some very stark realities on how the demand for this innovation is met.

The death of Steve Jobs solidified one the most jarring juxtapositions of our time. On one hand, if you are a believer in Steves accomplishments (like I am), you are in awe at the way he fused the arts with science to create the worlds most valuable and influential technology company. Apple has created a product line that revolutionizes the way we communicate, create and take in information. The world will never be the same. On the other hand, there is something troubling about the make shift shrines that were erected outside of Apple retail stores upon Steves death. Here we have this counter culture acid-head rebel being worshipped outside of a store that sells products for thousands of dollars. Look up irony on the dictionary.

Long before the iPhones release in June of 2007 I lusted after the shiny objects that Apple made. The effect that these products had on my life not only entertained me but also helped me to define my own creative voice. To be honest, I’m not so sure that I’d have a career in the digital arts if it weren’t for the early inspiration that the two Steve’s brought me. However, like any good robot consumer I consumed these products without the slightest notion or curiosity as to where they came from or how they were made. It was like the magic Apple fairies just made these shiny little boxes in the North Pole. I never thought to connect the dots that oil was used to make the plastic casing or that actual people would need to be used to put these things together.

Mike Daisey, the performer and writer of the explosive New York play “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” said to Playbill:

“We live in denial about China: a relationship that so disturbs us that we pretend our devices are made in magical Willy Wonka-esque factories by space elves instead of the real human cost we all know in our hearts has been paid. This moment is an opportunity to peel back the surface and get at the secret heart of our relationship with Steve Jobs, his devices, our labor, and China itself.”

The history of supply chains and the manufacturing process that feeds them is quite complex. The industrial revolution gave birth to the America we know today and put America at the forefront of innovation. America was suddenly fused together with the ability to capitalize on that innovation by creating an assembly line that supported the massive demand for the new products. That assembly line gave way to a low cost streamlined way of making products that accomplished two things: jobs for the working class and reasonably priced goods that the same working class could afford to use or by. It was a dream scenario. Products and services were made and fed by each other in the same system of supply and demand.

Take this example (via WikiPedia) of Andrew Carnegie’s significant accomplishments:

One of his two great innovations was in the cheap and efficient mass production of steel by adopting and adapting the Bessemer process for steel making. Sir Henry Bessemer had invented the furnace which allowed the high carbon content of pig iron to be burnt away in a controlled and rapid way. The steel price dropped as a direct result, and was rapidly adopted for railway lines and girders for buildings and bridges.

If you follow the bouncing ball you can see how this single act created a domino effect that changed our lives. Cheap steel gave way to railroad expansion which gave way to freedom of movement and physical growth around the country. Steel cores gave way to skyscrapers and later on to automobile production. And so on and so on, you get the idea.

The same logic can be applied to the products that Apple products have had on the West. There are millions examples of how the personal home computer gave power back to the individual and fostered a creative revolution. Early on in Apples formative years many of the products were made in the US. It’s almost hard to imagine now given that the global manufacturing climate has changed so much.

Ok, so what changed? In the late 20th century, de-regulation grew and combined with new international free trade polices that gave companies the ability to make their products much cheaper than they had been made before. This meant outsourcing to the cheapest bidder, mainly China. This eliminated America’s ability to both create and supply products for the middle class. What rose in the background were millions of workers who made these products in what we now refer to as “sweatshops.” We now know that every single Apple product is made in an environment that overworks the employees, underpays them by American standards and stresses them out to the point that even suicide has been an option.

Who’s to blame here? Is it the player of the game or the game itself? Or both? And, we have to ask ourselves honestly: is the Apple tarnished?

In Walter Isaacson’s biography “Steve Jobs”, he conveniently skips over Apples transition from American factories to Chinese factories in favor of focussing on Steve Jobs, the person. However, in the middle chapters he does give light to Steve’s obsession with Apple’s early factory lines in Northern California. Steve was obsessed with the way they physically looked and operated drawing off the notion that if any part of the products DNA was compromised then the whole product would be compromised. I can’t imagine that Steve took the same care to aesthetic perfection in the Chinese factories.

So how do we change this? Many far left liberals are calling on Apple to stop the whole practice all together. Let’s look at some harsh realities with that notion. Apple is a publicly traded company therefore, it’s main goal is to turn a profit which then keeps the stock price high and investors happy. Using todays math under the current rules of the game, if Apple were to engage on the popular grassroots campaign that’s being called “make the iPhone 5 ethically”, profits would fall, the stock would plummet and the same people that green lit the “ethical iPhone 5” campaign would get fired. A core pillar of Apples profit center has come from a miracle supply chain story that is rooted in cheap manufacturing in China that can keep margins high while meeting the worlds obsessive product demands. Therefore, making the iPhone 5 in America under American employment standards is not option under the current model.

Next, when China opened it’s doors to the outside much of their reason for doing so came from a place of “look, we have one billion people here who are ready to work. bring us jobs.” This thinking immediately took China out of a rural migrant farm worker culture to that of pollution filled urban sprawl that has seemingly countless numbers of people who are willing to work for very little money on products that they can not afford to buy. China was desperate to jump into the modern world and this was a ticket to the party. The simultaneous deregulation of global business synced up perfectly with this new panacea of cheap labor. You had global companies, like Apple, that wanted to increase it’s profits and you have a country that has the work force and desire to become a global super power. Both set of mutually exclusive goals were accomplished. What happened in the space between was not thought through or possibly even considered.

For the most part I am a believer in the Global Village and that the more communication brings us together the more borders disappear and we become connected to each others challenges and triumphs. What happens in China is not so far away anymore that it can be ignored. The philosophical view of how humanity can operate as a collective conscious is valid and necessary as our population grows and as the challenges of the modern world become more apparent. Now, as we strive for a new world paradigm we are however caught in the grips of an old world order that we also can not ignored.

What can be done in a reasonable manner about the person who works at the sweat shop making iPads? And what can done to not judge the employer, in this case Apple, who is playing by the rules? China itself has done very little to regulate worker conditions. No one is forcing these Chinese workers to take these jobs at FoxConn, in fact these jobs are in very high demand. Potential new workers line up by the thousands to try and get a new job at FoxConn. The Chinese cultural view on stable employment is so different than ours that it’s hard for us to understand the context which immediately leads us to blaming and judging. Add to that, any CEO of a public company is burdened with turning a profit for their company so making stuff in China is a good idea for the books. The point is that the game is rigged and there’s no way to win. I’m not endorsing Apples treatment of workers. It pains me to play with my iPad knowing that these young Chinese workers were eating poor food and sleeping in these cramped dorms when assembling this beautiful device.

There aren’t too many options that could fix this but there are a couple. China would need to collapse from their highly leveraged market and the balance of manufacturing power would once again shift. Or the throngs of Chinese workers could uprise organically and demand better conditions and pay and form a union. The latter is most likely and even a hopeful outcome. Doubling Chinese worker pay is actually reasonable, probable and would keep Apple still very profitable. If you’re wondering, moving the manufacturing to US based factories is not an option. That ship sailed quite some time ago. Let it go.

This post is more about observation that solutions. To me, it’s fascinating and impossible to ignore that this very MacBookPro I’m writing this blog with is tainted with the pains of the human spirit being pushed too far.

About a month ago, Nightline was granted unprecedented exclusive access to the FoxConn Apple manufacturing plan (link below). Reporter Bill Weir drops a bomb of a soundbite at the end which is, for better or for worse, true; “In our current world you can either be the country that makes this stuff or the country that lines up to buy this stuff but you can’t be both.”

If you choose to blame Apple and to take a stand then you have to take a stand on all Chinese exports. That means you wouldn’t a single piece of electronic equipment in your home or automobile. Do any of you see yourself doing that? If you choose to single out Apple because they have brilliantly exploited a flawed rule book then you are blaming the player and not the game. Apple is experiencing what’s called “The Nike Effect.” They are not the only company making their products this way. They are merely the most iconic brand doing it. “Think Different” has been stamped in our psyche so deeply that it’s hard to make sense of the contradiction.

I will continue to live in both worlds. Simultaneously I’ll be be troubled about these worker conditions in China while I continue to purchase the devices. It is my hope that we can do both while bringing awareness to the issue that may come up with a better solution. Long term, it’s great that Apple has been singled out because the amount of global attention it brings to matter is valuable. Awareness is a good first step. For most of us, it’s too late to turn back from how these innovations have effected our lives. They are part of the fabric. I don’t see too many of us lining up to stop buying electronics. The harsh realities of how these products made are now part of the fabric and the ever growing juxtaposition of the modern world. I believe with enough exposure and openness about the issues we can find a solution that pleases all sides.

Watch Nightline get exclusive access to Apples iPad and iPhone factory, click here

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Denis
    March 9, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    I’m so glad you’re writing about this Zach. It such a disturbing situation and, like you, I have no solution but am glad we’re at least discussing it now.

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