A small-scale tech dilemma

If you missed Mike Daisey’s piece on ‘This American Life’ this weekend (which we caught while driving back from Boston) it’s well worth listening to here. Daisey is a self-described Apple obsessive who became curious about the people who actually make these devices we all use and went to Shenzhen to find out who they were and how they lived. His visit coincided with one of the first waves of suicides, which was the explanation for the otherwise confusing netting around the tall factories.

Although Apple and the other technology companies maintain that they “ensure safe conditions” at the factories, Daisey found that:

That translates to making employees sign “no suicide” pacts and letting 13 year-olds work half-day long shifts, as Mike Daisey, a self-proclaimed Apple fanboy, details in this week’s This American Life. Daisey goes to Shenzhen, China, where Foxconn employs over 400,000 workers. He talks to both factory workers and businessmen, gathering chilling information about the situation at the factory, discovering suicide nets, 36-hour shifts, 27-year-old burn outs with dismembered limbs and underage workers. Wouldn’t Apple, a company obsessed with details — so obsessed it even programmed Siri to avert uncomfortable questions about its origins, as host Ira Glass discovered — pay attention to these very problematic details, wonders Daisey.

AtlanticWire reports today on the latest from Foxconn (h/t Ritholtz):

As American consumers ogle over shiny new gadgets at this week’s Consumer Electronic’s Show, the workers that make those products are threatening mass suicide for the horrid working conditions at Foxconn. 300 employees who worked making the Xbox 360 stood at the edge of the factory building, about to jump, after their boss reneged on promised compensation, reports English news site Want China Times. It’s not like this is the first time working conditions at Foxconn have made news outside China. But iPhone and Xbox sales surely haven’t lagged in the wake of those revelations and neither Apple nor Microsoft has done much of anything to fix things.

Instead of the raise they requested, these workers were given the following ultimatum: quit with compensation, or keep their jobs with no pay increase. Most quit and never got the money. That’s when the mass suicide threat came in. The incident actually caused a factory wide shutdown, reports Record China.

And the sentence in bold is the crux of the matter for the rest of us, I think. I’ve held onto my desktop Dell (another Foxconn client) since 2006 or 2007, which is probably too long-  it regularly freezes when I try to print pdfs, and doesn’t play well at all with the latest version of Excel. Still, it works, and so does my 2010 laptop. At what point is it wrong to get rid of the desktop and buy a new one? The labor conditions aren’t the only concern – there are also the massively toxic chemicals that get released from these devices when they are thrown away, which makes discretionary purchases even more difficult to rationalize.

So perhaps that’s the question – what is the dividing line between necessary and discretionary? Even that seems an ethical dodge since you’re supporting these practices regardless, but there doesn’t seem to be another choice.

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