Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The iPhone as cultural pornography

One fruit to rule them all?
The iPhone 5 release event in NYC; photo by thomasebunton/Flickr
Sometimes it couldn't be more blatant. My favorite nerd site, Ars Technica, ran two stories yesterday separated by a mere 17 minutes. Here they are in the order I saw them in my Twitter feed:
  1. iPhone 5 sales top 5 million during launch weekend (9/24, 9:17am)
  2. Foxconn worker riot closes factory (9/24, 9:00 am)
Line from the first story:
"Demand for iPhone 5 has been incredible and we are working hard to get an iPhone 5 into the hands of every customer who wants one as quickly as possible," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement.
Awesome, how are they going to do that? Well...the second story has some clues:
TUAW speculates that the riots (at Foxconn) were in no small part caused by the recent long iPhone 5 production ramp-up; Engadget links to a (non-English) report discussing "practically compulsory" overtime related to iPhone 5 production.

In a piece on the Australian Broadcasting Company's excellent "Religion and Ethics" site, philosopher Slavoj Zizek has a few damning things to say about the globalized consumerist-industrial complex that makes possible things like the orgiastic iPhone release parties that happen now, literally, every year since 2007:
The icon of today's creative capitalism is Apple - but what would Apple be without Foxconn, the Taiwanese company owning large factories in China where hundreds of thousands labour in atrocious conditions to assemble iPads and iPods?

We should never forget that the shadowy obverse of the postmodern "creative" centre in the Sillicon Valley...is the militarized barracks in China, plagued by a string of suicides by its workers as the result of their unbearable work conditions (long hours, low pay, high pressure). After the eleventh worker jumped to his death, the company introduced a series of measures: compelling workers to sign contracts promising not to kill themselves, to report fellow workers who look depressed, to go to psychiatric institutions if their mental health deteriorates, and so on. To add insult to injury, Foxconn started to put up safety nets around the buildings of its vast factory.

No wonder that Terry Gou, the chairman of Hon Hai (the parent company of Foxconn), referred to his employees as animals at an end-of-the-year party, adding that "to manage one million animals gives me a headache." Gou added that he wants to learn from Chin Shih-chien, the director of Taipei Zoo, exactly how animals should be "managed." He even invited the zoo director to speak at Hon Hai's annual review meeting, asking all of his general managers to listen carefully to the lecture so that they could learn how to manage "the animals that work for them."
Now consider economist/commentator, Paul Krugman's Times piece, The iPhone Stimulus. Krugman points out that "although iPhones are manufactured overseas, most of the price you pay when you buy one is domestic value-added — retailing and wholesaling, advertising and profits — all of which counts as part of G.D.P." Here we see the nationalistic underside of global hypercapitalism, and how markets are not somehow transcending and (as some contend) overtaking national borders, but they actually hardening them. We in the U.S. are more inoculated to global concerns today than at any previous point in history. How? The triumph of neo-liberal economics and the culture of the ever-new gadget.

Notice, for instance, in Krugman's piece that he says absolutely nothing about working conditions in Chinese factories. He can't, because the Keynesian economic system he's championing espouses no "morality" and makes no rooms for such things. As an inherently nationalistic system, human labor conditions in other countries are out of the pale. Hyper-consumerism is good for the economy. Period. And that there are huge iPhone release parties every year is exactly part of the plan. Krugman cites Keynes who argued that "use, decay, and obsolescence" are exactly what stimulate an economy. Krugman: "Sure enough, that’s what Apple is doing. It’s bringing on the obsolescence. Good."

Good? Is stimulating a nation's economy on the crushed bodies of another nation's laborers good? Is the massive amount of waste that's generated from such a system - both in manufacturing and consumer waste - good?

My likening in the title of the iPhone to pornography has less to do with that consumers do with these things than with the respective industries of each, and the underlying economic system that makes both possible. Pornography as an industry produces "entertainment" for its market that takes often broken people into its labor force and crushes them even further. (Robert Jensen, author of Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity, is helpful here.)

Likewise, the consumer electronics industry produces an endless stream of gadgets to its mesmerized and distracted market on the crushed backs of factory labor in developing Asian countries. As long as the consumer is blind to these realities, people like Krugman can say the things they do with a straight face. Cheap electronics (or porn) appear from some mysterious place (we know not where) and we are lulled into a collective consumerist euphoria (or masturbation). Meanwhile, profits stay with American companies, and the American economy gets a "stimulus." All is well, Krugman would have us believe.

I've said it before, I'll say it again here: Economics is always morality in that any economic system will assume a moral framework - whether it acknowledges it or not. And in the case of the American economic system...that morality is pretty cruel.

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