What price an iPhone?

In The Twenty-One Bal­loons—one of my all-time favorite child­hood books—a kindly pro­fes­sor attempts to fly across the Pacific by bal­loon but instead crash lands onto the diamond-rich island of Kraka­toa. There, he dis­cov­ers a fan­tas­ti­cal com­mu­nity where, apart from the few oblig­a­tions imposed by a “Restau­rant Gov­ern­ment,” the lucky inhab­i­tants spend their days “try­ing to make life more pleas­ant for our­selves and each other.”

There was a time when this happy vision had much in com­mon with how we imag­ined The Future. With­out giv­ing it too much thought, those of us who grew up watch­ing The Jet­sons and dream­ing of mag­i­cal robots assumed that labor-saving devices would mean more free time for every­one, as we all shared in the ben­e­fits of new technologies.

But that’s not how it’s turned out. Almost with­out notic­ing, we’ve traded our egal­i­tar­ian Jetsons-era paradigm—which inci­den­tally coin­cided with a thriv­ing Amer­i­can mid­dle class—for one that requires ever-more from the world’s poor­est and most vul­ner­a­ble while pil­ing up riches for an ultra-rich and every smaller global elite.

Not con­vinced?

Take a look at the New York Times’ exhaus­tive piece on How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work. The story goes like this:  Apple has moved almost all of its man­u­fac­tur­ing over­seas because this was its “only option.” The “flex­i­bil­ity, dili­gence and indus­trial skills” that Apple requires are in far greater sup­ply over­seas than among U.S. work­ers. “The speed and flex­i­bil­ity is breath­tak­ing,” one Apple exec­u­tive told the Times.

Who can argue with “speed and flex­i­bil­ity”? Such goals sound rea­son­able enough, right?

But drill down beneath the abstrac­tions, and the facts tell a dif­fer­ent story. What does all this talk of “speed and flex­i­bil­ity” actu­ally mean in prac­tice?  The real­ity is this:

One for­mer exec­u­tive described how the com­pany relied upon a Chi­nese fac­tory to revamp iPhone man­u­fac­tur­ing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forc­ing an assem­bly line over­haul. New screens began arriv­ing at the plant near midnight.

A fore­man imme­di­ately roused 8,000 work­ers inside the company’s dor­mi­to­ries, accord­ing to the exec­u­tive. Each employee was given a bis­cuit and a cup of tea, guided to a work­sta­tion and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fit­ting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was pro­duc­ing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

Mean­while,  Apple’s prof­its con­tinue to soar to stratos­pheric lev­els, with the com­pany earn­ing more than $400,000 in profit per employee, more than Gold­man Sachs, Exxon Mobil, or Google, accord­ing to the Times. “Apple shares are up $24.3 bil­lion today. Maybe now they can afford to pay their Chi­nese work­ers more than $1 an hour,” humorist Andy Borowitz tweeted.

But what truly mystifies—and sad­dens me—isn’t the fact that inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions (even Apple!) tend to focus on short-term profit at almost any cost (though even this assump­tion is of fairly recent vin­tage, as New York Times eco­nom­ics reporter Louis Uchitelle explained in The Dis­pos­able Amer­i­can) but rather that so many of us seem to accept this as a mat­ter of course. That so few of us are say­ing: “Are you fuck­ing kid­ding me?”

How has this come to pass? It seems to me that, in our anx­i­ety over U.S. com­pet­i­tive­ness, we’ve come to unthink­ingly con­flate two quite dif­fer­ent things:  First, the ques­tion of edu­ca­tion and skills, a legit­i­mate con­cern. Sec­ond, the ques­tion of “dili­gence and flexibility”—words that are all-too-often code for a will­ing­ness to tol­er­ate the sort of work­ing con­di­tions that decades of labor activism and leg­is­la­tion have sought to con­sign to his­tory.  (Thomas L. Friedman’s “Aver­age is Over” col­umn in yesterday’s Times illus­trates this quite nicely.)

You don’t have to look far for evi­dence that Apple’s busi­ness model is toxic.  (While I’m not sug­gest­ing that Apple is alone here, the company’s epic cool fac­tor does make it an espe­cially galling tar­get.) Just today, the Times fol­lowed up its report on Apple’s out­sourc­ing with a piece chill­ingly titled: “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad,” rife with sto­ries of fatal fac­tory explo­sions, sui­cides, rou­tinely dan­ger­ous work­ing con­di­tions, and work-related injuries. The “dor­mi­to­ries” where work­ers live? Reporters found up to 20 peo­ple stuffed into a three-room apart­ment.  An audit of Apple’s sup­pli­ers last year found at least half the work­ers at 93 facil­i­ties exceeded the 60-hours-a-week limit estab­lished in Apple’s own sup­plier code of conduct.

And the ratio­nale for this fren­zied activ­ity and human suf­fer­ing? Push­ing iPhones into the world more quickly and in larger num­bers, respond­ing to our rapa­cious cries for more Angry Birds and Siri. “What U.S. plant can find 3,000 peo­ple overnight and con­vince them to live in dorms?” Apple’s Jen­nifer Rigoni rhetor­i­cally asked the Times.

As an iPhone owner I have this to say: I would have been will­ing to wait.