Addiction. The term has grown to include much more than psychologically addictive drugs. Now we can be addicted to love, chocolate, foreign oil, debt, the internet and more recently, our smartphones and tablets. With the huge demand for smart phones, iPads, and a myriad of other mobile devices, addicted consumers always itching for that next hit of a shiny new gadget are providing an incredibly lucrative business for the corporate dealers of tempting technology.
To see how the rapid distribution of new gizmos hyped up with a cultish marketing strategy can generate rabid consumer demand and irresistible profit margins, look no further than Apple computer. In fact, the company sold more mobile devices just last year than the number of computers it has sold in the last 28 years combined. Sure, some of us could drop our iPhones and pick up a Droid, if we had a good enough reason to. But there are many who will never go back to the old world of PCs and Blackberries.
So what if everyone is addicted to Apple, what is the harm? It's not hurting anyone, right?
Last month's New York Times article "Apple's iPad and the Human Cost for Workers in China" argued differently. Required reading for any Mac super fan, this piece by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza reminds us why journalism is still a much needed check against the awful power of multi-national corporations selling addictive products. The article points out that Apple's breakneck speed of innovation comes only thanks to a global economic system heavily dependent on foreign manufacturing in its most extreme form.
At Foxconn Technology and other mega-manufacturers of Apple products in China, iPads are produced in factories the size of small cities. Millions of workers are treated as human cogs subject to dreadful hours, deadly chemicals, explosions, and bouts with depression so severe that nets have to be installed alongside buildings in order to prevent jumping. Despite Apple's claims that the company regularly audits suppliers and its public stance favoring workers' rights, the New York Times article suggests that the American computer giant still favors speedy, cost effective production over improving working conditions. After all, isn't that what Americans consumers prefer too?
When dealing with addiction or any bad behavior, there's really only two strategies to take. We can either ignore the problem and hope it self-corrects, or confront it in a direct and assertive fashion. For most Apple addicts, the former choice is easier and much more preferrable. But as a result of the journalism being done at the New York Times and elsewhere, some consumers are beginning to speak up. In response to online petitions signed by more than 250,000 people, Apple announced this week that an independent organization the Fair Labor Association will audit several of its supplier factories in China.
In full disclosure, this post is being typed on a MacBook Pro and in all likelihood, this blogger will check for comments on an iPhone tomorrow. The issue here is not that all Apple products should be boycotted until we see bold changes in the company's supply chain. It's hard to imagine life without them. But now that we know that we love Apple devices, isn't it time we start asking more questions?
The iPhone 5 will probably be the next revolutionary, game-changing device worth waiting for in long lines, but will it be ethical on a human level? It's at least worth asking about. On a national scale, these questions impact the American economy too. We'll never bring back jobs to our failing manufacturing sector when we continue to buy products from countries that don't impose the same workers' rights standards as we demand at home. For consumers, those standards have to become a priority if we want to see our flagship companies start building their plants on Amerian soil again.
Thankfully, the latest word on Foxconn from the Fair Labor Association is positive. While the audit is still in its early phases, the FLA reports that the Apple supplier is far from a sweat shop. Even if this audit continues to provide reassurance, Apple addicts should not stop asking tough ethical questions of its suppliers and of themselves. The serious ramifications of willful ignorance greatly outweigh the inconveniences of being an informed consumer. And ironically, there really is no excuse not to become more involved, because the products we are simultaneously buying and protesting are actually making the process of becoming engaged and informed easier than it ever was before.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to check out, Applenomics and Chinese Labor: The American Citizen's Culpability. Also, The iPhone and Skype: The Technology of Today & Tomorrow.