Tuesday night during the State of the Union Address, President Obama recognized one business leader as the symbol of the best America has to offer.
It means we should support everyone who's willing to work and every risktaker and entrepreneur who aspires to become the next Steve Jobs.
The fabled Apple cofounder died last October. The TV audience had to settle for a glimpse of his widow. But even death has not prevented Jobs from becoming 2012's "it boy.” Walter Isaacson's propitiously timed biography remains on the bestseller lists. On the strength of Christmas sales of the iPad, Apple had a monster fourth quarter and is now the most valuable company in the world.
The Apple brand borders on a cult, and the late Jobs has gone from living legend to dead demigod, and on a bipartisan basis. This was Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels with the Republican response to the State of the Union.
GOVERNOR MITCH DANIELS:
The late Steve Jobs — what a fitting name he had — created more of them than all those stimulus dollars the President borrowed and blew.
That bit of Apple polishing engendered some cognitive dissonance. The company's record on U.S. jobs is not stellar. In a recent series about Apple, The New York Times reported that almost all iPhones and iPads are built not by Americans but mainly by Chinese workers in factory cities amid shocking working conditions. And the details of iPad’s inhumanity to man were dramatically revealed on an episode of This American Life three weeks ago by investigative monologist Mike Daisey.
I talked to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It's like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine.
And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen. But that would require someone to care, that would require…
The Daily Show too focused on the labor conditions at that factory Foxconn, where employees worked insane hours.
INTERPRETER FOR FEMALE WORKER:
The job was to dissemble a tiny part of a mobile phone 5,200 times a day.
Five-thousand two-hundred times a day? How long is a day?
He's been working for as much as 35 hours continuously.
So a day is a day and a half.
Steven Levy writes for Wired and is the author of Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything. He says Apple's reputation will withstand even these latest revelations.
Our relationship with Apple is conveyed mainly by two things. One is there's the Jobs myth, and you could see it by — being invoked by both parties last week, but also by the relationship we have with their products. We just love 'em!
So as long as they continue to deliver magnificent-looking goods that really, really work, nobody much cares about how they go about doing it?
I think the cult you mentioned earlier is going to dismiss these charges and say, look, every company has to deal with it. Look, I'm pretty sure that the people at Apple have sleepless nights over this because they would prefer, I think, for their workers to have very comfortable conditions there.
But they're under terrific pressure to deliver their products at low prices. This is pressure from us. We buy more Apple stuff when it's more affordable.
Bad conditions in offshore plants have gotten attention periodically over the last 20 years. It happened to Nike concerning factories in Vietnam, and it's happened to other big brand names.
But I wonder if Apple is so much at the center of our sense of technology as savior, that the US government will actually be obliged to put the squeeze on China in a way it hasn't before, to see that companies like Foxconn, the contract manufacturer at issue here, begins to conform to better working conditions.
I guess it could happen. It would be a protectionist move that could bite us back in other ways. It's no accident that this stuff is being discussed politically because it's tied to the American problem of losing manufacturing businesses, right?
Apple does employ tens of thousands of people, generally in — in more creative jobs, in design jobs. They're building a giant new headquarters in Cupertino, and people say that this is the paradigm that we have now, and it will just continue in the future, where they're great jobs in America are not manufacturing jobs but creative jobs.
This guy Mike Daisey, the monologist, identified himself as a total Apple geek. And he field strips his Power Mac 'cause it relaxes him. You too are kind of an Apple geek, right? You've been following the company for a couple of decades?
And, you know, in the wake of a week like this, are you, on balance, for 'em or are you agin' 'em?
The questions that I struggle with are we're doing things now that are way beyond the concerns of people around the world that struggle just to eat, and if looking at Apple helps us focus the way we feel about that or maybe spur us into action, or maybe letting Apple know that we're willing to pay a little more for any company which guarantees better working conditions, then that's a good thing.
I know that for many, many years Apple got a lot of criticism because they weren't price competitive, and a lot of people wouldn't buy the products because of that. So Apple's operating the way capitalism is telling it to do and it's really up to us to send a signal that Apple's leadership in this area would be appreciated by us.
Steven, thank you very much.
Stephen Levy writes about Apple for Wired, and is the author most recently of In the Plex.