CHENGDU, 20 May, 2011
An assembly line explosion at the Foxconn factory in Sichuan – where Apple’s iPad 2 is manufactured – has left two workers dead, but overseas distribution should not be adversely affected. At first glance, the story is much like any other: a couple of nameless foreign casualties caught in an accident, to be forgotten by day’s end and replaced tomorrow with another article about violence in Nigeria or U2’s next promotional tour, a frank yawn not far behind.
But all the elements of an important piece of news are here, and it should be raising more questions than it has (none so far, beyond the ‘why’). Rather than being a marginally interesting story about explosions or else relegated to the business page as a hiccup in distribution, this should be a jumping point from which people can raise a solid debate or two about real issues. About mass consumerism and hype marketing, about outsourcing and foreign working conditions, about distributor-imposed censorship and the future of books.
Easily-forgotten is that Apple is a major corporation, with one thing on its metaphorical mind. Beneath its veneer of alternative living and overall hepness, Apple Inc. is no more or less benevolent/better than main rival (and oft vilified) Microsoft. It’s very much the Target to the latter’s Wal-Mart, Burger King to its McDonald’s, Chong to its Cheech. Its products regularly feature non-recyclable components, the company champions censorship and its closed-system software stifles small-scale developers. And although Apple Inc. has pushed both its company for less environmentally detrimental materials and its contracted producers for better working conditions, it does only so much and often in reactionary fashion. Despite how the company so unabashedly touts itself, the unfortunate reality lends to them a garb of only mediocre saintliness.
More troubling is the market-driven materialism fostered under the alias of innovation. One buys the iPad last February, and within a year its ‘next generation’ is available; by that reckoning, I’m going on twenty-five generations old. What is basically a slightly shinier bit of tech is made-up to make the average consumer’s slightly-less-shiny bit of tech seem utterly archaic. The price of the new iPad 2 is relatively high, but not so high as to preclude purchasing it as a replacement for its now antiquated antecedent.
This cheap parlor trick of a strategy is made possible by similarly cheap overseas production, in factories such as the one in Chengdu, Sichuan. And Apple is not alone; virtually every bit of digital bric-a-brac one might find on American shelves, every stitch of clothing and every plastic whatsit; all is made in similar fashion on foreign shores, to be used and broken or rendered uncool, discarded and replaced at relatively low monetary cost. Meanwhile the public debt swells, landfills bloat, the seas bubble and the sun goes black. Who knows, perhaps tomorrow’s Rapture will simply be China’s sudden dumping of its American bonds, something that while unlikely is always within the realm of the possible.
Food for thought, a handful of controversial angles that should be taken from an otherwise blase explosion in a far-off factory in a province few Americans may remember, producing something planned to be forgotten in a few years’ time.