I can’t be the only person who on seeing the mindboggling hysteria over the death of Steve Jobs found himself insistently murmuring ‘Foxconn, Foxconn’, over and over as if they were uttering a protective mantra. If I hear one more person gratefully sigh that Jobs was a genius, while lovingly fondling their iPhone, I’ll probably heave into my breakfast.
It might be true that Jobs redefined the way we think about telephones, personal computers and music players, and it’s probably quite an achievement to put most of the planet’s population on the same playing field technology-wise. Whether you’re the Queen or a hooded kid from Tottenham, the iPod is now your music player of choice. But still your iPod/Phone/Pad didn’t fall from the sky and even less did it spring straight from the Olympian mind of Steve Jobs into your hip pocket.
The Apple iBook on which I’m writing this is seven years old and on its last legs, its third battery and its second power cable. It will be the last Apple product I’ll buy. I bought an iPod a few years ago, but I gave it away after a few weeks because it annoyed the hell out of me and it was going to take so much bloody time to get my CDs onto it. And I never saw the point of walking/riding around town with earphones on. I just couldn’t get used to it. I felt like I was in a kind of bubble of my own thoughts from which I looked out onto the world, and if there’s one thing I don’t need it’s less connection to the world. I do tend to sing to myself when wandering the streets, which probably looks very strange, but not as strange as you with your iPod earbuds, hunkered down inside the White Album or Nevermind and with a kind of blank dissociated look on your face as though your favourite canary just died and no-one understands.
Anyway what Jobs has presided over is a kind of weird and somewhat sinister universal fetishising of technology. Apple have made a lot of very attractive stuff, stuff that came along at a time when our laptops and mobile phones were becoming indispensable parts of our daily lives. Apple lifted the bar; then again, the bar was set so appallingly low in the first place. Nearly all the consumer goods we buy, from cars to bedroom furniture, are crap. They’re badly designed, don’t last and are expensive to repair. Computers even more so. A few days spent using a PC running Windows is to expose within you levels of rage and destructiveness that you didn’t know you possessed.
The fetishising of personal tech that Jobs and Apple initiated and groomed us for really creeps me out. It’s tied to a number of things that are even creepier: the kind of sexy Apple-controlled life that Jobs and his hip team would prefer us to lead, the feverish global excitement that erupts whenever Apple make a minor improvement to an iPhone or a laptop (it’s thinner, or pink or whatever), and the inescapable fact that Apple products are made under conditions of great suffering. If they came branded with a bloodied handprint instead of that whimsical bitten apple it would be a more accurate statement of the ethos that produced them. And we’d probably still buy them just the same.
George Orwell reckoned, in relation to coal, that if it required the slave labour of pregnant women to produce it we’d consider that a fair price. The same goes for our personal tech. Anybody who has access to the internet, and even a teeny weeny social conscience – one say a little bit bigger than David Cameron’s – knows that Foxconn is hell on earth, where children are employed under unbelievably appalling working conditions and where people kill themselves rather than face another day at work, or are routinely maimed in the course of their Apple-centric tasks and then discarded like bits of worn-out gadgetry. It’s a basic fact of the consumer lifestyle that we are so astoundingly affluent because everyone else is so poor and miserable. Not everybody in the world can be as affluent as you and me – the planet would catch fire and explode. And we are affluent, and we don’t care. Our iPhones were made by child labour, every time we jet off to a writer’s festival or whatnot we may as well just burn down a forest (and no that carbon offset you paid for isn’t worth shit), and new Apple products fresh from the Foxconn factory floor generate an excitement that is almost sexual in its fervour.
Or maybe we just lost our capacity to think, if we ever had it. I’m not talking about the discursive process that goes on in one’s mind 24/7, or even about one’s level of political awareness. I’m talking about the capacity to hold the idea of another person’s mind, or the expression of another’s mind in one’s own mind. Our iPhones were made by real children. Really. Real children. Another human being really committed suicide because they couldn’t tolerate another day making our fucking iPods. And so on. If I can look at my Apple product and not think ‘Someone really suffered to make this’ that’s because the Apple product itself has eclipsed the thought of the other in my mind; iPod, slave child – iPod wins every time.
The American actor Mike Daisey recently toured Australia with his show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Daisey, a long-time Apple geek, visited the Foxconn complex disguised as a US businessman, fake business cards and all. I didn’t see his show being somewhat removed from capital cities, but in some recent interviews Daisey speaks very deliberately and lucidly about what he saw, and why we tend to not to want to talk about it very much.
Daisey points out that it was Apple’s choice to use Foxconn. Until the 90s Apple products were made in California. He also points out that the labour costs make up only a small part of the price of an Apple product. The production of Apple products by slaves isn’t part of the natural order. When Steve Jobs heard abut Daisey’s show he reportedly remarked that Daisey ‘didn’t understand the complexities of the situation’. Daisey commented that from Jobs who generally limited himself to ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Go away’ and variations thereof, an acknowledgment that there was ‘a situation’ at all was really something.
Sometimes I feel like I’m part of a Mafia family I can’t get out of. The consumer paradise we live in sucks massively. It doesn’t work, buys us off with transient fetish-objects, is gobsmackingly cruel, immensely destructive to other life forms as well as to human beings, and makes everyone culpable. It sets up a kind of ‘Macbeth trap’ where to protest or gainsay things is to expose oneself to the fact that connections of the Apple-Foxconn sort are everywhere. Macbeth decided he might as well go on slaughtering and so forth to the bitter end, because he had so much blood on him now it didn’t make any difference. It’s an argument that reminds me of the one put to me by someone who learning of Foxconn said, ‘Well, they are all just as bad as each other, so it makes no difference if I buy Apple.’
If you’ve read this far and are ready to shrug your shoulders in despair, just as you did over the Mavi Marmara or over Utoya or whatever, that’s probably not going to take you anywhere. This is the world we live in. The political consequences of apparently non-political choices are always present. There isn’t any choice we can make that isn’t political, and nearly every consumer choice we make is tied to a destructive end effect. This is the world we have made and any reasonable person would have to assume that it is only going to get worse. How one develops a life that manages to stay afloat amid this weird wonderland is another matter. Some of us develop severe mental illnesses as a way of coping, some of us start damaging other people, some of us become fascists, and all of us to some degree develop strange symptoms of one kind and another. (Some of us become writers for example.) But still, in all this, understanding what is happening, understanding how these things come about, getting a handle on the politics of personal circumstance is critical to one’s human presence.
Steve Jobs was not a saint. He was a businessman. Businessmen generally want to make a lot of money, make their idea the Big Idea if not the Only Idea and they are not too fussed about how that happens. It’s the usual corporate ethic, common to banks and oil companies as well as to Apple.
A computer or a phone is just a tool. It’s not your sexual partner, and it’s not your mother or your best friend. It’s roughly equivalent to your washing machine. The genius of Steve Jobs was to convince us that an Apple gadget was a kind of sex toy that could talk to you, an object that you could love and that could love you back, that would be your fun lovin’ friend forever. And it wasn’t really made by anybody in particular. Steve just imagined it with his genius mind, and there it was, just for you.