The Human Cost of Early Adoption
This past Monday, Apple hit a world record. Preorders of its iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus came to over four million in the first 24 hours. That is twice the number of preorders placed for the iPhone 5 in 2012. It is the largest launch day success of all time. Truly, a remarkable achievement for any company in financial terms!
But are financial terms the only terms worth measuring?
In May of 2011, the New York Times reported the explosion of an iPad factory in China due to lax safety measures – killing several workers and severely injuring others. Despite Apple’s assurances that such a thing would never happen again, a second factory exploded in December, a mere seven months later. In this second event, several more workers were severely injured.
According to an NPR investigation, that second site was the subject of an official safety inspection by Apple mere hours before the explosion. An inspection which clearly failed to identify some serious concerns.
Pegatron, the factory’s owner, blamed dust for this explosion. And the testimony seemed to bear this out – He Wenwen, one of the workers injured, states that the air in the Pegatron factory often resembled fog due to the heavy buildup of dust, that their venting technology routinely failed, and that the factory windows had actually been sealed shut.
Apple insists that these workers were compensated for their trouble. The workers indicated that this was true – though only after the media had pressured Apple repeatedly to ask for comment. Each worker reported receiving the equivalent of $800 American.
This is where I have to point out that the starting price of an iPhone 6 is $650.
And, according to the World Health Organization, the median daily cost of a hospital stay in a Chinese facility comes to $65.
Which means that if you’ve contracted to be one of those four million early adopters? Congratulations. You’ve helped cover ten days of treatment for a single injured worker, some of whom who were still receiving treatment a full ninety days after their injuries.
Why are the safety standards at these factories so lax?
One basic answer is the relationship between ourselves and our phones. Our desire to lay hands on these devices – as soon as they are released, and at a minimal cost to us – means that Apple, and other electronics manufacturers selling to the North American market, push their suppliers to turn around vast quantities of product with little advance notice and at the lowest of costs.
On top of which, the New York Times reports that Apple forces each supplier to trim their costs by 10% every year. All in the name of providing us with the newest, shiniest toys the moment they arrive.
I ask again: are financial terms truly the only terms worth measuring?
And I also ask, how can we change this? How can we, as individuals, effect positive global change? The most basic and sensible answer is this: We can “think different” about our upgrades. We can ask ourselves, do our current devices truly no longer function? Do they no longer serve the purpose for which they were intended – placing phone calls, keeping our calendars straight, taking photos? Do we, in fact, truly need this latest, greatest thing?
By opting out of the current voracious consumer cycle and opting for a more sensible pace of upgrades, we relieve some of the pressure put onto the suppliers. And by publicly sharing the reason behind these decisions, we put more pressure onto the companies who are squeezing those suppliers to change their practices.
Now – lest you think of this speech as nothing more than a self-righteous lecture– allow me a moment.
I am the owner of two iPhones. The white one is used for work, which allows me to set specific do not disturb or vacation hours. The black one is strictly for personal use, which allows me to store music and games without concern for company policies on data use. Because I find this convenient. My hands are far from lily-white.
But I purchased both phones before I knew the facts. And once I knew those facts, I knew I had to share them with others.
I will not be replacing one of these phones.
And even speaking as a worker in the technology field, I will never again be in the front lines as an early adopter. Because when we ignore the human cost of these devices, we ignore our own humanity. I know that now.
And so, I hope, do you.
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