Don’t Eat Rotten Apples (Computers)

I’ll admit it: I’m an Apple fanboy through and through. It’s pretty embarrassing because as cool as Apple is now, my iPhone, MacBook and soon-to-be iPad will be a cliché of the early 2000s. I will have been just another smug nice-guy in the mold of Justin Long.

Regardless, even this knowledge can’t suppress my excitement around Apple keynotes, where months of blogging and rumors lead up to a day that climaxes in an announcement of The New Product That You Must Have.

The buzz around the Apple Tablet, the iPad, was ridiculous, even from a fan’s perspective. Even Steve Jobs referenced an observant Wall Street Journal quote in his keynote, “The last time there was this much excitement about a tablet, it had some commandments written on it.”

Don’t think for a second that Apple isn’t crazy about this hype. You couldn’t buy PR that could match the insanity that surrounds their product launches. People proclaim that they will buy all of their products before launch when no one truly knows anything and after launch even when the products seem inferior.

However, this cult of personality (or cult of Apple, or cult of Steve — pick your phrase) has a negative effect. It steamrolls over any negative press, for better or for worse.

For instance, before the iPhone 3GS was announced, a Chinese employee of Foxconn, an EMS company that does contract work for Apple, reportedly committed suicide over a lost iPhone 3GS prototype. Chinese officials think that the suicide was provoked by the illegal search of his apartment and interrogation by his own employer regarding the prototype. Overlooking the irony that the Chinese called brutish work practices illegal, this is a horrifying story.

This story circulated around the blogosphere and some mainstream media outlets, and then it was gone. There was neither follow up nor any condemnation of Apple. One could argue that this was a little too auxiliary to really come back negatively to Apple.

Sadly, that may be true. A recent internal probe by Apple showed that, “audits of its suppliers uncovered 17 core violations of its policies, including three cases of underage hiring.” Of course, Apple didn’t name the suppliers, ostensibly because they are still doing business with them.

This news probably isn’t shocking to many people. EMS companies abroad are the new sweatshops, although more deadly. The definition of miserable conditions has shifted from 18-hour days and minimal payment to additional exposure to the toxic chemicals used to fabricate LCD screens and circuit boards.

However, a harsh condemnation of Apple would have to go hand in hand with some soul searching. It’s pretty hard to point a blameful finger at Apple when one buys socks and other slave labor goods from Wal-Mart or other big box stores. As a professor here recently noted, “Socks shouldn’t cost $1.00. They just shouldn’t … when you add up labor, materials, etc … they are worth more than a dollar.”

Nowadays, in America, it is impossible to not own products where slave labor did not play a part. The “I don’t buy Nike’s because they use slave labor,” protests are anachronisms. You can’t go green, buy organic and support fair-trade for every product you own; the reality of the new world economy is that slave labor has graced your product in some form or another, even if on a secondary or tertiary level.

I see where the anti-Nike, anti-Wal-Mart protests are coming from — those are two of the biggest fish worth frying in the immoral labor game.

However, for true change to happen, it would require massive shifts in global authority. Every country would have to cede equal authority to a labor standards organization, and that would never happen. Even if it did, centralizing such power leads to the potential of further corruption from the top (See: WTO).

As for Apple, their aura of positivity, or as Steve Jobs and Jonathan Ive put it 30 or so times during the iPad keynote, “magical[ity],” is doomed to come to an end. Apple is only one or two flubs away (or one or two superior start-up products away) from not being the top dog. It’s when Apple isn’t controlling the game anymore that the labor practice accusations will propel them further into their downward spiral.

Michael Boileau is a fourth-year political science major. He can be reached at mboileau@uci.edu.