Wired Magazine's Embarrassing Whitewash of Apple's Electronics Supplier Foxconn
Wired magazine's Joel Johnson has written a stunning bit of PR for Foxconn, now-controversial supplier to the consumer electronics industry, duly wrapped in credibility-enhancing guilt over Western materialism.
The article, “ 1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?” pretends to be about Foxconn’s factories. But Johnson admits he’s a tech toy writer who apparently has no knowledge of manufacturing (I know I’ve had only limited contact with manufacturing, yet reading his piece, I’d bet serious money that I’ve seen more manufacturing operations than he has by dint of being a coated paper brat and doing due diligence on some oddball tech deals over the years, as well as visiting a motherboard maker back in the stone ages when motherboards were made in the US). Yet he’s remarkably uninhibited in using his fantasies and abject ignorance as a basis for making sweeping generalizations about the Taiwanese powerhouse. For instance:
"In the part of our minds where Americans hold an image of what an Asian factory may be, there are two competing visions: fluorescent fields of chittering machines attended by clean-suited technicians, or barefoot laborers bent over long wooden tables in sweltering rooms hazed by a fog of soldering fumes.
When we buy a new electronic device, we imagine the former factory. Our little glass, metal, and plastic marvel is the height of modern technological progress; it must have been made by worker-robots (with hands like surgeon-robots)—or failing that, extremely competent human beings.
But when we think “Chinese factory,” we often imagine the latter. Some in the US—and here I should probably stop speaking in generalities and simply refer to myself—harbor a guilty suspicion that the products we buy from China, even those made for American companies, come to us at the expense of underpaid and oppressed laborers."
Huh? Is he serious about this? Anyone who has been following China even slightly would imagine Chinese factories aren’t like Japanese car-makers, heavy on robotics, but are mainly labor intensive (with the exception of some sparkling new capital intensive factories where China is trying to go up the value added chain), and if they are in the Pearl River Delta, makers of watches, clothing and toys (hence not much soldering). And if higher tech, the operations HAVE to be pretty to very clean. But no, everyone in the Wired readership is assumed to share his blinkered imagination.
This extract really does serve as a window onto the entire piece, because it is unduly involved in his inner process, and is remarkably ungrounded in reality-vetting. Yes, he did visit a Foxconn factory, on a guided tour organized and led by executives and PR giant Burson Marsteller. That fails the objectivity smell test. Did he try to talk to Foxconn workers outside the factory? Ex Foxconn workers? Apparently not. The only perspective he has outside his guided tour and his noisy imagination is from one Paul, a “steward for Western electronics companies seeking to procure components or goods from one of the city’s thousands of suppliers.” Do you think someone who makes his living connecting Western tech executives to Chinese manufacturers is going to say ANYTHING bad about the biggest fish in the electronics pond?
The piece goes to obvious lengths to soften the perception of the situation. He frames his account in terms of the suicides, when the recent New York Times series on Apple and Foxconn did not focus on those deaths, but the extreme hours and sometimes grinding physical toll (such as workers getting swollen feet from standing and working more than 24 hours straight). So the article skips almost completely over that issue, juxtaposing the seeming niceness of the clean factory he visited versus the deaths, and only very much later gets to the conditions that produced the suicides.