Designed by Apple in California, assembled where?

While hanging out in Seattle with @amcvitte, @jgerrish, @lizblankenship, and @eaderhold, we decided on a whim to go see a one-man play called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, created and performed by storyteller–turned–investigative-journalist Mike Daisey. I had no idea what to expect, but “powerful” would not have been one of my guesses. The content of the show is already dead-on, so there’s not really anything I can add, so I’ll just expand on a few of his key points.

The show interleaves stories from Apple’s history (Woz calls the Vatican, Jobs asks Scully if he wants to make sugar water or change the world, etc.), tales of life inside the RDF, a brief (and questionable, but that’s beside the point) history of HCI, and stories from Daisey’s trip to China to find out how, and by whom, all of the products we lust after are made. Needless to say, as an HCI guy, Apple fanboy, and anti-corporatist (don’t think too hard about that juxtaposition), I liked it.

But thinking too hard is exactly what Daisey wants us to do. How can I justify simultaneously being an admirer, owner, user, and shareholder of Apple and its products while opposing the corporatist system that created an environment in which 13-year-old girls work 12–15-hour days assembling products just like the very one I’m typing this on?

When Jobs and the Apple team saw the Xerox Star machine at PARC, in all its WIMPy glory, they recognized that the metaphor of computing had shifted. Daisey uses this metaphor as a metaphor (metametaphor?), saying that “if you control the metaphor, you control the way people see the world.” Well, the metaphor of “Made in China”–as–black-box is a dangerous one, and one that has to change.

We think that factories in China are highly automated, using machines to do the precision work required to put together an iPhone. The scary part is that this has become true in the collective mind of the West, but only because we like to ignore the humanity of the millions of workers who assemble these products, by hand, in Chinese factories — 435,000 of whom work for FoxConn, Apple’s primary assembly contractor — pretending that they are, in fact, machines. It’s like I said about the mythology of Ford in my previous post: the assembly line is about mechanizing and menializing human labor. And in China, people are cheaper than machines. This metaphor is what has to shift.

Mike Daisey makes the point that it’s not about the money, it’s about the mindset. I think he’s right. Here’s why:

He says that the total labor cost of an iPhone is 80¢. The number I found is $6.54[1] [2], so I’ll use that. The theoretical hourly wage of a FoxConn worker is $1.22[3]. Going with that for the sake of argument, that means it takes

6.54$iPhone×11.22man-hour$=5.36man-hoursiPhone 6.54\frac{\$}{\textrm{iPhone}} \times \frac{1}{1.22}\frac{\textrm{man-hour}}{\$} = 5.36\frac{\textrm{man-hours}}{\textrm{iPhone}}

to produce an iPhone. Now consider a US factory where a worker makes $20/hour. Even if it takes the same number of man-hours to produce an iPhone, which it wouldn’t because a US factory would be automated (with machines), the labor cost of producing an iPhone would increase to

20$man-hour×5.36man-hoursiPhone=107.21$iPhone 20\frac{\$}{\textrm{man-hour}} \times 5.36\frac{\textrm{man-hours}}{\textrm{iPhone}} = 107.21\frac{\$}{\textrm{iPhone}}

A large percentage increase, yes, but it’s a product that costs upwards of $600. (Remember, the one you bought was subsidized by the carrier.) With a total materials cost of $172.46[4], that means Apple would only make $320.33 per unit as opposed to $421.00 per unit.

Last quarter, Apple made $6 billion in profits[5]. Its market cap is currently almost twice that of Google, and 50% higher than Microsoft’s or IBM’s. In fact, the only two larger publicly traded companies in the world are PetroChina and Exxon Mobil[6]. As a proud AAPL shareholder, I understand that the raison d’être of a corporation is to make money, and that it isn’t a humanitarian organization. But I don’t want blood on my keyboard — or in my portfolio. Domestic manufacturing can go a long way toward that goal. (It can also increase quality and reduce the financial and environmental costs of shipping products around the world. Oh, and it could help bolster the US economy (remember, I’m a Detroiter) and create some great press.)

As Mike Daisey says, the crime isn’t exporting our jobs, it’s exporting our jobs without exporting our values.[7]

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  5. 13 weeks ending 2011-03-26 ↩︎

  6. As of 2010-12-31 ↩︎

  7.;=28888 ↩︎