All Agony, No Ecstasy Yet

Truthful or not, I think we can all agree that Mike Daisey’s performance is a call for action. In an introductory letter to a transcript adaptation of “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Daisey writes,

“This monologue has always had an activist component by its nature—it charges people to examine their lives, their roles in our economic realities, and take action within those frameworks… One should never doubt the power that comes from humans gathering together in a charged space.”

Daisey asked, Bucknell’s un/real and un/true asked, and now I ask myself: what can we do?

This question echoes Fran Hawthorne’s concerns regarding Apple’s extreme secrecy in Ethical Chic. Because Apple strategically controls the flow of information between business and consumer, the public is often kept in the dark about company practices, including the inadequate working conditions in Chinese manufacturing facilities like Foxconn. Much of the knowledge we have about Apple’s overseas operations come from Apple itself, who does not release any report without selectively filtering its content first. If corporations truly own themselves as Lynn Stout argues in The Shareholder Value Myth, Apple should be held responsible for its lack of transparency and its failure to provide basic labor protections for Chinese workers. And while Apple certainly has the most significant role in improving working conditions, it cannot resolve the issue on its own.


Map of Foxconn manufacturing plants in China.

I believe it would take a large-scale revolution throughout all constituents of Apple’s network to reach any sort of solution. This means individual consumers, Apple employees, competing firms, labor unions, and government sectors must take corresponding actions geared toward the elimination of Apple’s unethical business practices. Daisey reiterates this need for collaboration in the excerpt above, stating that everyone can contribute in some way by creating change within their own “framework.”

Individual citizens, whether consumers or employees, can continue to raise public awareness of these issues and demand that Apple better its management of international operations. Other tech companies can further develop and promote their own acts of corporate social responsibility, encouraging Apple to do the same. Foxconn can improve its current standards of working conditions. Local Chinese governments can mandate higher standards, so that plants like Foxconn must comply. And Apple, at the center of the storm, has the influence that could ignite all these other changes by taking the first step and deciding to make a difference.

So, the question comes full circle again: what can we do?  I like to believe that everyone has the power to do something… or nothing. Activism is a choice.


9 responses to “All Agony, No Ecstasy Yet

  1. You raise a very serious yet often overlooked question in your blog about what we can do to help ameliorate the problem at hand. And I feel obliged to agree with your proposed solution that it will take “a large-scale revolution” by so many different groups to bring about change. Unfortunately, the need for this revolution has been around for decades – some would even argue years – and it still has not occurred. Also, individuals in Mauritius, Bangladesh, and Taiwan who are making our t-shirts and our pants are facing similar and in some cases worse labor conditions. So why are we only talking about Apple? Too many industries exploit cheap labor because consumers are unwilling to trade their beloved cheap prices so that a young boy working in a Taiwanese sweatshop can work 8 hours a day instead of 18.


    • I agree with you that this issue is larger than Apple and still larger than the whole tech industry itself. It is a society-wide problem of business ethics. And although a coordinated effort throughout all parts of a corporation’s supply chain would be a step towards resolution, that sort of alliance is a weighty undertaking considering each firm is most interested in its own self-benefit.


  2. I still wonder though, in a world where all of those constituent groups take some actions to improve the supply chain (and value chain?) of technology, a world I’d rather be in, how does coordination or decision-making happen across such disparate groups. Is that something a firm can do? Should do?


    • Since the firm sits at the center of this network, I think the firm should be the instigator of creating value across its supply chain partnerships. How the firm goes about doing this appears to be the complicated part. I am inclined to think that making decisions with each individual node before establishing relationships between them would be the most effective way. However, this could also create more conflicts of interests between separate groups.


    • It is something that firm can do, but the should is another issue. Truly coordinating across multiple groups and interests would require significant time and financial investment. I think it’s fully possible to operate in an ethical way with a stakeholder view, that does not require that investment. Rather the firm can focus on fairly treating their customers, employees and communities in direct interactions.


  3. Changing the subject of conversation slightly here, you say that it would take a large-scale revolution to reach any sort of solution here. I agree with you on that, and challenge the class to think of other situations where a large-scale revolution did take place, and what made it successful? There have been events in US history with a similar scale to the problem with working conditions at technology companies in China. To start, let us remember that not too long ago, the US itself passed laws regarding fair working conditions. Can any lessons learned apply to the Foxconn and other tech companies issue? Is this a relevant comparison?


    • I tried to think of a “mass revolution” in relation to a consumer product similar to the iPhone that caused change and the closest thing I could think of was with Hummers a few years back. Mass information and activism against Hummers occurred that spread pro-environmentalism throughout public thought. As a result people stopped buying Hummers and the brand completely died out. With this comparison though, there are some caveats. The first being that the negative impact caused by Hummers was much more of “our” (American consumers) fault in our minds. We were the ones burning the gas with out actions, and all of this environmental damage was happening right in front of us. This differs compared to Apple, where the bad manufacturing conditions are happening unseen halfway around the world. My second point, which I’ve talked about in my blog posts, is that for Apple products there is no “better” (less detrimental) alternative. With the Hummer there were far better options that people could buy in the same auto market, like a Prius or an Accord. With the iPhone, for example, there is no better option. While Apple has been specifically called out for their poor manufacturing conditions, Foxconn has multiple large technology employees that all sell in the United States. Until one tech company decides to make good manufacturing conditions a priority, there will be no “better” alternative.


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