Every once in a while you get a story so strange and horrible that it takes a while to sink in. I’m talking about the suicide of a Foxconn employee who was caught doing something with an “iPhone prototype” and jumped out of the window.
So the story goes that a 25-year-old man at Foxconn – where iPhones are born – was to send 16 iPhone prototypes to Apple from the Chinese factory, but one was lost somewhere. The Foxconn security department then proceeded to illegally search the man’s apartment and interrogated him. But that was too much for the man that might be responsible for leaking a prototype of the next iPhone.
A few days ago on July 16, he jumped from a 12-story building because of the incident. It’s probably not out of the realm of possibilities that he not only was roughed up, but also lost his job even though that’s not mentioned in the report.
This means two things: that there is an iPhone prototype floating around (a highly dubious proposition considering that they would not have “mailed” any prototypes to Foxconn nor does Foxconn particularly need prototypes from Cupertino – they only need plans and someone from Apple to supervise the manufacture) and that the CE industry is built on false promises and exploitation. It’s financial exploitation, physical exploitation, and psychological exploitation and we’re all part of it.
Human beings make the stuff we buy. We may imagine a graceful ballet of robots welding and soldering, untouched by humans, but someone – probably a young woman from a rural province – is actually snapping the final parts together and testing the screen. She sits there all day. She has a set of requirements that she has to check. Let me put it this way: in the 18th century watches were built in factories using parts milled, piece by piece, by farmers in the Swiss mountains during the winter. These pieces were sent to major cities where humans put the devices together. They were then sent to jewelers who put them into cases. The process of making an iPhone is essentially exactly the same. The process of manufacturing delicate machinery has not changed since the 18th century and at ever step there is some sort of exploitation. The farmers were paid pennies, the movement assemblers were paid a few more, and the consumer paid much, much more.
Every once in a while I get a comment about how bitter I am against the CE industry. It’s because I’ve been watching crap float by my transom for almost a decade and I have a general idea about what will succeed and what will fail and what failure costs in human and economic terms. The majority of what you see is rebadged OEM garbage. Your Dell netbook is the same as your HP netbook is the same as your ASUS netbook. The case and some features are different but in the end, you’re buying permutations of parts over and over again, ad infinitum. When we get excited about something it’s because it’s different.
We fall into these traps, too. We love gadgets. We really do. But we need to gain perspective.
Today’s latest phone is tomorrow’s landfill. Yet companies like Apple hide this fact by dressing their products in a veil of desire. Apple isn’t the only company that does this but it’s the company that’s best at it. Their contracts with Foxconn clearly include absolute security and now those requirements bit them. Perhaps the worker was deranged. Perhaps we don’t know the whole story. What we do know is that someone died for an iPhone and that’s ridiculous.
Fake Steve writes:
We all know that there’s no fucking way in the world we should have microwave ovens and refrigerators and TV sets and everything else at the prices we’re paying for them. There’s no way we get all this stuff and everything is done fair and square and everyone gets treated right. No way. And don’t be confused — what we’re talking about here is our way of life. Our standard of living. You want to “fix things in China,” well, it’s gonna cost you. Because everything you own, it’s all done on the backs of millions of poor people whose lives are so awful you can’t even begin to imagine them, people who will do anything to get a life that is a tiny bit better than the shitty one they were born into, people who get exploited and treated like shit and, in the worst of all cases, pay with their lives.
This is absolutely true. The disparity between the real cost of gadgetry today as compared to the 1970s and 80s is immense. When I was growing up a TV was a major investment. Now I can go down to Best Buy – not Circuit City and CompUSA, right? – and pick one up for a pittance. It’s this race to the bottom that is killing our ability to judge when enough is enough. These things cost something. They cost lost jobs at home and draconian labor policies abroad. They cost water and energy and fossil fuels. They cost in psychological distance.
I am the guiltiest party here. I’ve made my living telling you guys about technology. I’ll keep doing it, too. For every one hundred stupid iPod docks that float by there is something that will change the way we live. I’d like to be on hand to tell you about the next breakthrough and to do that I have to tell you about the next sushi-shaped USB drive. But I’m sickened by the thought that a man died at a factory that makes the one device that I truly think has changed the way we think about cellphones. He died to keep the next generation of that phone from your prying eyes. This is a reason so mundane and trivial that the mind reels.
So let’s go back to chasing the Palm Pre or the HTC Hero or the iPhone 4GS or whatever is next. Fine. It’s fun and it’s a distraction. But can we get a little perspective? Can we accept that this stuff costs us in ways we don’t see? It costs us in terms of environmental damage and human exploitation. It costs us in terms of connections with real, living people. It threatens to turn our children into e-addicted ciphers. I’m cynical and hyperbolic now because this is important.
I’d like your input on what kind of coverage you’d like to see from CG when it comes to the manufacture and sale of these gadgets. I’m planning a trip to China this summer to see all of this first hand – more on that later – and I’d like to do a little more on this than just run the latest press release from Anycorp on their amazing new widget.