Charles Duhigg and David Barboza’s recent New York Times article, "iEconomy: Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad", has created quite a firestorm. The article is a blistering expose of Apple and its Chinese manufacturing partners. For those that haven’t read it, please do. This is important, necessary journalism.
Apple apologists are quick to defend the company's behavior as "Me too". Critics call for boycotting Apple products. Holding Apple accountable is the right thing to do for all tech companies. We must see the apologist arguments for what they are -- fallacies that disempower us from action -- and hold up Apple as standard-bearer reformer for all Western technology manufacturing in China.
The Times article has predictably caused a series of commentaries in the media that are critical of Apple. "Dear Apple: Do something about Chinese working conditions" writes CNet’s Molly Wood. "Apple in China: Has iOrwell Arrived?" asks a Times reader in a reaction letter to the story. And Ad Age’s Bob Garfield writes that "The Rot at Apple's Core Could Sicken Consumers -- and Its Business".
Yet a quick read of the comments on these pieces reveals a contingency of readers that feel the Times goes too far in its critique of Apple. Apple is, they argue, but one company of many that utilize Foxconn and other plants like it. Brutal labor conditions are not an Apple problem, they are the problem of a globalized, greed-driven technology industry. Apple is but one player on a worldwide stage, and it’s therefore unfair to single Apple out.
Many technology journalists agree. In, "Apple’s an easy target, but you can’t blame them for Foxconn", the Loop’s Jim Dalrymple writes: "We can’t simply ignore the problems that arise in manufacturing the devices we love to use, but we can’t throw the blame at Apple’s feet and demand they do more".
CNET’s Brooke Crother continues with his piece "Won’t Buy Apple Products? Then Don’t Stop There". He articulates how boycotting Apple products due to poor worker conditions would open a "Pandora's box", where one would also need to boycott furniture, batteries and even lingerie (his example, not mine) -- all products made in China under the same harsh work conditions in which Apple products are made.
In a public G+ post critical of Apple, influential tech blogger Robert Scoble comments:
It's true that other companies exploit Chinese laborers in the same way as Apple does, and because of this the arguments described above certainly sound reasonable. The problem is they’re not at all reasonable. In fact, they’re classic logical fallacies.
Specifically, they employ the "tu quoque" or, "Two wrongs make a right" fallacy of reasoning: According to Logical Fallacies:
The tu quoque fallacy is committed when it is assumed that because someone else has done a thing there is nothing wrong with doing it. This fallacy is classically committed by children who, when told off, respond with 'So and so did it too', with the implied conclusion that there is nothing wrong with doing whatever it is that they have done. This is a fallacy because it could be that both children are in the wrong, and because, as we were all taught, two wrongs don’t make a right.
While Dalrymple, Scoble and Crothers are by no means suggesting inhumane Chinese working conditions are right, their arguments do imply that Apple is no more wrong than other tech companies and, in this way, Apple is somehow less wrong, or right.
The apologist arguments can also be seen as red herring fallacies in that they distract from the issue -- Apple’s role in perpetuating barbaric, inhumane work conditions -- by changing the focus; the problem isn’t Apple, it’s globalization, the government, consumers, other tech companies, etc.
So, logically, Apple is still wrong, regardless of what others do. It’s illogical to lose sight of the fact that Apple, specifically, is still wrong.
In addition to violating the laws of sound reasoning, the apologist arguments are also morally troubling. In short, they promote apathy when action is needed most. By taking the specific Apple behavior, and making it general about the tech industry, they are essentially throwing cold water on a smouldering, necessary call to action against the negative effects of globalization that is growing among the general public.
As the recent SOPA protests proved, rallying around a specific issue (Stop Software Piracy Act) is a highly effective way to protest a general issue (Internet censorship). By going after Apple specifically, a powerful statement can be made about the negative effects of globalization in general. As the biggest fish in the pond, Apple making changes to the way it does business -- real, substantive changes -- has the potential to send ripple effects across an entire industry. This is why sustaining the impetus to action against Apple is so important. As the Times states:
Given Apple’s prominence and leadership in global manufacturing, if the company were to radically change its ways, it could overhaul how business is done. "Every company wants to be Apple", said Sasha Lezhnev at the Enough Project, a group focused on corporate accountability. "If they committed to building a conflict-free iPhone, it would transform technology".
Though cynics might scoff at the American public’s appetite for ethical, "fair trade" technology, there is precedent in the organic products industry. Accoding to the Organic Trade Organization:
- U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to $26.7 billion in 2010. Sales in 2010 represented 7.7 percent growth over 2009 sales. Experiencing the highest growth in sales during 2010 were organic fruits and vegetables, up 11.8 percent over 2009 sales Source: Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey.
- Organic non-food sales grew 9.7 percent in 2010, to reach $1.97 billion. Source: Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey.
- Total U.S. organic sales, including food and non-food products, were $28.682 billion in 2010, up 9.7 percent from 2009. Source: "Organic Trade Association’s 2011 Organic Industry Survey".
With organics, Americans spend billions on food and products that are produced under strict ethical and environmental standards. They make a conscious choice to spend more money on organic products for ethical reasons. As a result of this choice, an entire industry has been changed. Why should technology be any different?
Growing Better Fruit
Currently we don’t have the same choices when shopping for technology that we do for food, but there’s no reason to believe we shouldn’t. This is why we must care about Apple; it is our opportunity for change. We must see the apologist arguments for what they are, disempowering fallacies, and choose to do something rather than apathetically shrug our shoulders.
We’ve proven as a connected global community that we can mobilize in powerfully meaningful ways. As bills have fallen in Congress, so have despotic regimes in the Middle East. We can have "fair trade" technology, furniture and clothes, but we first have to show the industry that needs to make them that we’ve had enough of the status quo.
Protesting Apple specifically is an opportunity to make a critically important statement in general. We can tell the technology industry that we are not just mindless consumers intoxicated by the sparkle of shiny new things. We can remind companies like Apple that they exist only by the good graces of our pursestrings, and to remain in those good graces they must act in certain ways. Yes, we must blame Apple. It might not feel fair, but it’s rational and, most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.
Ryan Tyler is a free-lance writer and educator living in Portland, Or. He has worked in the entertainment industry as well as K-12 and higher education. His interests include education reform, distance education and using technology to make the world a better place. Of course, he’s also a tech geek.