China: Steve Jobs’s Achilles Heel, Tim Cook’s Problem
Every hero has an Achilles heel. Steve Jobs’s Achilles heel is China. Our Achilles heel as a nation is the willingness to overlook Steve Jobs’s Achilles heel for the sake of the devices we love and rely upon so much. Proof of the love: Apple sold 4 million 4s iphones in the first 3 days, a number more or less equivalent to the national populations of the Palestinian Territories, Congo, New Zealand, Lebanon, or Ireland (4.5 million).
Despite the backlash against retrospective narratives describing Jobs in the exact same terms that he himself would have wanted (a “perfectionist” who “transformed” “modern” society by yoking “art” and “technology”), several facts of the Jobs legacy remain that need addressing:
- Apple is still the world’s most valuable company;
- environmental and humans rights abuses in Apple’s factories in China continue;
- technology is not going away; so Apple should really do something, namely, behave responsibly, like an adult with manners.
Let’s Talk about the Talk
But first, can we talk about the talk about Jobs? I am fascinated by this desire to craft him as a techno-artist-perfectionist-antiestablishment-cool guy figure when serious abuses occurred on his watch, and are still occurring. I think these consistently crafted narratives actually say something deep-seeded about us and our own desires, namely, why we’re willing to overlook certain things (juicy facts forthcoming, dear readers, about company’s profits, and worrisome tales of its abuse record), for the sake of the devices that give us small-scale pleasure and convenience (hey! let me show you this picture of my dog digging up daffodils!), but this is a psychology/sociology question, and I’m determined to stay on task for my first blog post.
Beautiful and Dirty Rich
According to New York Times Op-Ed Contributor Ross Douthat, Jobs brought us “Up From Ugliness” because he was a true modernist: “It’s about making the modern world beautiful again”, which Jobs was capable of doing through his eye “for grace and style, and his recognition of the deep connection between beauty and civilization.” Whoa: the heavy-handed links between “beauty” and “civilization” (has anyone ever defined those terms adequately, ever, in the history of civilization?) are a bit much here. And by a bit much, I mean, how do you use these words without a sense of irony, without the sense of Matthew Arnold and the Victorian empire lingering in the background? (Ross Douthat, “Up From Ugliness,” New York Times, Op-Ed, October 8, 2011).
The Wall Street Journal reports that Jobs called his philosophy the “intersection of art and technology.” (Note how most reviews are repeating Jobs’s own philosophy about intersecting “art and technology” in subtle ways; like “beauty and civilization,” are these most Heideggerian of terms being used seriously, or worse, accepted wholesale as the PR/marketing bit that they are? As if Jobs is a blend of Plato and Ghandi with a dash of Benjamin Franklin bettered by Edison holding Matisse’s paintbrush?. (YUKARI IWATANI KANE and GEOFFREY A. FOWLER, Steve Jobs, Apple Co-Founder, Is Dead – WSJ.com, The Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2011).
Come on, now. But it seems that, yes, we are are buying this philosophy, and linking it to a character trait called “perfectionism.”
Malcolm Gladwell refers to Jobs’s perfectionism: “He needed things to be perfect, and it took time to figure out what perfect was.” (Malcolm Gladwell, “The Tweaker,” The New Yorker, November 14, 2011). A previous New Yorker article opens this way: “As seemingly everyone on the planet knows, Steve Jobs’s defining quality was perfectionism.” And by this time I’m wondering why no one else has figured out that everyone else is using this word, so maybe they should consult a thesaurus or come up with a different, non-perfectionist angle.
John Cassidy gets it right when he says that Jobs is a “hippie capitalist.” Jobs wasn’t an artist, but instead he identified a need for consumer goods and made them better. Jobs was a monopolist (Apple now dominates 70% of the music market), a marketer (Boxes of glass! White computers! Touch screens!), a self-acknowledged pirate, and an exploiter. (John Cassidy, “Steve Jobs: Artist or Hippie Capitalist?” The New Yorker, October 7, 2011).
Apple: Actually the World’s Most Valuable Company
Let’s not kid ourselves. Apple makes pretty products. And it was Apple’s ability to create prettier, more functional (comparative, not substantive adjectives) consumer goods that turned it into the world’s most profitable company, with a market value of approximately $350 billion, with annual profits estimated at $65.2 billion a year (Yukari Iwatani Kane and Geoffrey A. Fowler, “Steven Paul Jobs, 1955-2011 Apple Co-Founder Transformed Technology, Media, Retailing And Built One of the World’s Most Valuable Companies,” Wall Street Journal, October 6, 2011).
Citing Apple, Bloomberg reported in July that Apple’s third quarter net income doubled from last year to “$7.31 billion, or $7.79 a share, from $3.25 billion, or $3.51” (Adam Satariano, “Apple Profit Tops Estimates on Record Sales,” Bloomberg, July 19, 2011).
By comparison, even rival Facebook (alias “we get you to tag yourself everywhere”) is valued between $60-80 billion, with investment bank Goldman Sachs putting a $50 billion price tag on the company, were it to go public, a figure less than one year’s proceeds for Apple.
Math isn’t my subject, kiddos, but my calculator tells me that Facebook weighs in at 1/7 the value of Apple, with Google at about ½ of Apple’s value. Dare we even think about the social value or function or which one we love the most or can’t live without?
Some More Numbers
- £120 per month: the salary of a factory worker in China manufacturing an Apple product ($191 at today’s exchange rate), and that was a salary increase from 90 pounds per month following the 2010 Foxconn suicides, as the Daily Mail reported (Andrew Malone and Richard Jones, “Revealed: Inside the Chinese suicide sweatshop where workers toil in 34-hour shifts to make your iPod,” The Daily Mail, June 11, 2010).
- 28-35 days: lifespan of an average worker bee (as in an actual buzz-bee): just throwing this in here because, well, bees are interesting.
China: Jobs’s Achilles Heel
Last April 2011, the PBS NewsHour reported that factory workers in China have been complaining of health problems due to toxic chemicals involved in cleaning the glass screens, a similar feature that writers have claimed as part of Jobs’s “perfectionism.” (PBS NewsHour, “In China, Factory Workers Allege Poisoning From iPhone Production” April 13, 2011). Jobs knew customers wouldn’t be happy with plastic, but glass breaks, so at the last minute, he devised a perfect solution, some fancy tech-sort of glass screen that doesn’t break: so goes the narrative). Factory workers are ill; they have committed suicide.
Where is our self-awareness of this fact as a nation amidst the technology that Jobs enabled, a technology that gives us the capacity to be more self-aware and in i-touch than ever before? See the Daily Mail article cited above for in-depth coverage on this story and the horrible working conditions for factory workers in China, as well as Jobs’s callous reaction, which can also be seen here in a BBC report from June 2010: “Apple Boss Defends Conditions at iPhone Factory, BBCNews, June 2, 2010.”
For what it’s worth, Jobs apparently “told Mr. Obama that Apple employs 700,000 factory workers in China because it can’t find the 30,000 engineers in the U.S. that it needs on site at its plants” because of immigration, work permit, and green card-related issues: (L. Gordow Crowitz, Steve Jobs’s Advice for Obama, The Wall Street Journal, October 31, 2011).
Yes, I agree that things would be a lot better if the U.S. could retain talented engineers who weren’t blocked in bureaucratic red tape. But that doesn’t excuse Apple’s treatment of workers in China.
In blog post “Apple’s China Problem” dated October 3, 2011, Alex Wang, guest author of the “Legal Planet: The Environmental Law and Policy Blog,” affiliated with Berkeley Law and UCLA Law, backs up the legitimacy of those who are investigating Apple’s human rights and environmental abuses:
“Ma Jun, the lead on the Apple campaign [for investigating pollution concerns], is one of China’s most respected environmentalists. He was a Yale World Fellow and one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world a few years back. He authored “China’s Water Crisis,” which has been described as China’s “Silent Spring.” He previously worked for an environmental consulting firm advising corporate clients, and so knows the nuts and bolts of developing more sustainable production. (Full disclosure: I previously worked with Ma Jun’s group on several initiatives when I was an employee at the NRDC.)”
As Wang points out, Apple is not alone in being accused of polluting the environment and creating worker safety hazards. But in Wang’s terms, “Most of the other firms, however, engaged with the Chinese NGOs and explained or sought to fix their environmental problems. Apple has, inexplicably, stonewalled.”
Apple! Do Something!
Hello, Charles Dickens, where are you now? Meet the 21st century! If we thought we left long days and child labor behind in the nineteenth century, or more recently, behind in the Nike factory (was that just three years ago in 2008?), think again.
The most profitable company in the world has made its pennies at the expense of suicide, ill health, and twelve-hour-work days so that we may enjoy, and indeed, come to rely on, new standards of global connectivity.
Despite being the world’s largest company and its profits doubling within a year, despite sales of a phone in three days that is equivalent to nations like Costa Rica or New Zealand, despite egregious human rights abuses, writers are hailing Jobs as “antiestablishment.” (Gish Jen, “My Muse Was an Apple Computer,” New York Times Op-Ed Contributor, October 7, 2011).
Why we are so willing to take Steve Jobs as our modern hero, or, if hero is too strong of a word, then what has the iMac, iPod, and iPad given us (the phantom of E.M. Forster’s connectivity? an “I” something? an identity?) that is so valuable that we are willing to overlook the Dickensian conditions in which these “artistic” “technological” miracles were produced?
Or is that consumerism has become art, and that these devices fulfill a personally-constructed art-hunger that, like Meatloaf, we will do anything for love [art]? (No kidding: I went to an exhibition today with ipod touch screen audio guides, and there were people staring at the picture on the screen instead of the portrait by Botticelli).
The Crux: I want to buy an iPhone but can’t
And here, friends, begins my long exhale of deep regret, in an effort to circulate my chi: I am typing this on a Mac. I love this computer. I switched teams after a virus destroyed my trusty Lenovo beyond the point of all recovery and have never looked back. Although I was the last person in my socio-economic class to buy an ipod, testing out my boyfriend’s on the subway after he forgot it in my bag, I soon discovered that the tiny music-playing device with a convenient white circle enhanced all other sounds around me, even the subway’s groans.
I’m not going to be so naïve as to swear off Apple products forever. I would love to buy an iPhone. But after reading the disturbing reports about Apple’s treatment of factory workers, I don’t know whether I can. As Wang points out, I’m not sure any other electronics makers are much better. So what are we to do, go back to using carrier pigeons and carbon copies?
The Answer: Love us Back, Technology! Love and Act Responsibly!
The question is: why must human and environmental abuse occur to create the technology that we love and rely upon? (A post for another time is the link between these two things: get ready for my great love of PBS documentaries and Radioactive Wolves).
It is inevitable that the rising tide of technology is only going to continue. Another thing is also certain: your/our voice matters, and it matters in public places, like social media that rely upon technology (the rub, the rub!). A recent Wall Street Journal article indicated that marketers and researchers alike are beginning to follow Tweets on a mass scale for research purposes. Hedge fund managers are beginning to use keywords on Twitter as a test of optimism or pessimism, and hence, the nation’s mood, as a gauge of market predictability. (Rob Lee Hotz, “Decoding Our Chatter, The Wall Street Journal, October 1, 2011).
The Power of Voice (sing to Celene Dion tune, “The Power of Love”)
Ah, and so, we are left with the ever-present paradoxical theme of “the power of voice” in relation to markets: your voice means something because it has determining market value. Ask a Hedge fund manager who is culling through your tweets, to be archived with the Library of Congress (suppressing joke about poor Ph.D. student who will spend nine years of her life going through these archives in about thirty years and come up with Thoughts about Us).
Conclusion? Good news, friends! Our voices matter more than ever before! Technology companies have the ability to change their factory and environmental standards, and the media has the ability to change awareness and draw attention to issues that matter and change lives.
But we have to stop staring at our screens long enough to ask them to do something about it…in hopes that someone like me can, umm, buy a better screen. Please. My best friend will love you for it.
Tim Cook! Apple! (because we all know that corporations are people, too): I’m talking to you!