28 January 2012

Thoughts on Apple

“I actually think Apple does one of the best jobs of any companies in our industry, and maybe in any industry, of understanding the working conditions in our supply chain . . . I mean, you go to this place, and, it’s a factory, but, my gosh, I mean, they’ve got restaurants and movie theaters and hospitals and swimming pools, and I mean, for a factory, it’s a pretty nice factory.”~ Steve Jobs (2010)
Manufacturing #11. [Cafeteria at] Youngor Textiles,
Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, 2005.

Photograph © Edward Burtynsky.

Manufacturing #10AB. Cankun Factory, Xiamen City, 2005.
Photograph Edward Burtynsky.

I use an Apple MacBook Pro. It is a nice, but hardly flawless, machine. While using an Apple gives me something in common with Lisbeth Salander, it does not make me cool (that is really difficult to imagine) or especially insightful. In fact, her Apple laptop it is not what makes everyone's favorite, slightly wacked, avenging anti-heroine cool either.

I have written, mostly critically, about Apple and the impulse to canonize Steve Jobs here on several occasions since I became un-PC. ( I will say for the record that when, during the State of the Union Address earlier this week, our Hoper-In-Chief pointed out Jobs's widow, I wondered how she must've felt about being invited to the official ritual to serve as a prop.) But Apple has been in the news lately for its knowing complicity in highly exploitative environmental and labor policies. In particular you should read this extensive piece in The New York Times earlier in the week. Alternatively, Apple hipsters might download this segment from This American Life and listen to it on their iPods as a podcast.

What is the point? Surely not that Steve Jobs (or any of the other Apple execs) is a bad man. He may or may not have been a nice fellow or a jerk, honest or duplicitous, caring or oblivious, and so forth. Character issues are a sideshow. Surely not, also, that Apple is the only company knowingly complicit in environmental degradation or exploitation of workers in the developing world. The report in The Times makes it crystal clear that that hardly is the case. So too do Burtynsky's images of nice Chinese factories. (If you don't care for Burtynsky on all this, try Chris Jordan or Pietr Hugo.)

So, here are some points to take from the recent revelations about Apple.

First, a cool logo and image does not make a corporation less capitalist, less preoccupied with profit. Apple differs not at all from Wal-Mart in that respect.

Second, there is little room for moralism here. Using this or that product or brand does not make you guilty or culpable any more than abstaining from doing so absolves you of guilt or culpability.

Third, as the This American Life segment I link to above makes clear, lots and lots of things are "hand made"; that, for instance, probably includes your cell phone. When labor is very, very cheap "handmade" loses its romantic connotations.

Fourth, it is not just manufacturing that has been globalized. So too has environmentalism. And recycling of high tech gadgets (with its attendant health disasters - think carcinogens, heavy metals, etc.) is done by hand too. On this it is important to go back and read the earlier comment on moralism. Recycling your electronic toys as you engage in planned obsolescence does not make you a better person. It simply means that somewhere in China, or another developing country, people are taking your junk apart by hand.

Finally, all this news about Apple suggests that voluntary standards - whether for fair labor practices or environmental protection - are a joke. Companies will fabricate vacuous criteria that they will then work around. And they will turn a blind eye to the evasions. That is how capitalism works.

So, even if - as Jobs opined - the Cafeterias are nice, making iPhones-Pads-Pods by hand is a pretty crappy way to make a living. Apple ought to do better, but they won't. That is how capitalism works.

China Recycling #12. E-Waste Sorting, Zeguo,
Zhejiang Province, 2004.
Photograph © Edward Burtynsky.

Manufacturing #16. Bird Mobile, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, 2005.
Photograph © Edward Burtynsky.

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