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Blog, Technology

Where Siri Comes From


The popularity of off-shoring and outsourcing labor is incredibly relevant to corporate America today, particularly in the aftermath of an economic meltdown when unemployment in our own country has skyrocketed. From the Baseline Scenario blog, I read an eye-opening article by James Kwak entitled “The Price of Apple.” The blog post discusses the Chinese factories and the workers within these factories who produce Apple products. This post triggered my research into the subject, where I found an article in The Huffington Post about employees at the Apple Manufacturer called Foxconn, who were forced to sign a ‘No Suicide’ Agreement. So many suicides occurred at Foxconn that they felt it necessary to hang large nets in an attempt to catch workers who try to kill themselves.

In Kwak’s post, he claims that while he thinks the Apple operating system is far superior to Windows, he “would gladly switch back if I had confidence that my computer’s manufacturer was an appreciably, demonstrably better employer than Foxconn.” While this is an honorable statement, I’m not sure we could find a large percentage of people who would say the same. This is problematic.

It’s not that I doubt the morality of our society, but instead I fear that many people are as uninformed as I am about where the products we use and consume everyday actually come from. I can honestly, and rather embarrassingly say, that despite the fact that I own both a Mac computer and an iPhone, and have had many iPods over the years, I have never really thought deeply about who the people are that are physically making these products until today. Sure I have thought about Steve Jobs and the people at Apple who are responsible for the idea behind Apple’s revolutionary products, but I have fallen into the trap that Marx proclaimed as “commodity fetishism.”

Under capitalism, when we see a commodity, we think of it simply as good, as opposed to considering the work that an individual or many individuals have put into it. The consumer sees value in the product in and of itself, as opposed to deriving value from the labor it took to make it. We want an iPhone because Apple’s marketing campaigns and the hype surrounding the product has mesmerized us and all we want is to be able to Facetime and talk to Siri. When we see the slick iPads, iPhones, and Mac computers lining the brilliantly designed Apple stores across the globe, we don’t think about the underpaid and over worked Chinese laborers who make the physical manifestation of Apple products possible.

In a radio show called This American Life, Mike Daisey does a show called “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” (As a side note, this podcast is pretty much the most insightful thing I have heard in a long time. It’s an hour long, which I know most of you don’t have, but if my opinion is worth anything, I highly highly recommend listening). In the introduction to the show, the radio host takes his iPhone and asks Siri, “Where do you come from?” She replies: “I was designed by Apple in California.” The host then probes further and asks Siri, “Where were you manufactured?” And amazingly, she replied, “I am not allowed to say.” As if this robot woman inside this 4.5 x 2.31 x 0.37 inch device that weighs 4.9 ounces knows the answer and is purposely keeping it a secret, as if this non-human is trying to protect Apple.

Mike Daisey self proclaims himself as a complete Apple junkie and worshipper. He even refers to his devotion and obsession as a religion. He says he never would have questioned this religion had it not been for the pictures that he found. During his surfing of the Internet one day, he came across an article about someone who received their brand new iPhone, but it already had information on it. In the camera roll, there were 4 pictures taken inside of a Chinese factory that manufactures Apple products. He said that he looked at these pictures and they took his breath away. This self-proclaimed Apple addict and worshipper, who consumes his day with everything Apple, admits that until these pictures, he had never thought in a dedicated way about how his multitude of Apple products were made. If this man – who has completely taken apart his own Macbook Pro, touched each of its 43 component pieces, and put it back together again several times – had never thought about who made this product that he worships, it is highly doubtful that many of us have.

Let me leave you with this one eye-opening story from Mike Daisey’s trip to the factories in China. He talked to an older man, whose hand had been crushed in a machine working on the iPad line and was subsequently fired because his work was too slow. When Mike was talking to this man and heard that he worked on the iPad line, he immediately reached for his bag and took out his own iPad. The man’s eyes widened at the sight of this product. Daisey points out that the extreme irony of all of this is that there are no iPads in China. This man had never actually seen an iPad turned on and functioning. Mike gave him the iPad to use, and as he stroked the screen and clicked the various icons, he said: “It’s a kind of magic.” How could it be that a man who destroyed one of his own limbs to make this product, could be so utterly awestruck by it.

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Discussion

7 thoughts on “Where Siri Comes From

  1. Beth, thanks for bringing this issue to light. I think we are all aware of some companies that have been accused of human rights violations such as Nike sweatshops. But it is interesting that you shed light on a company like Apple that is worshiped by most Americans and many people around the world. It is interesting that we seem to overlook some companies like Apple, which products are and brand is everywhere, but we also stop to criticize a company like Nike that is also on many advertisements and is worn by many Americans. Maybe the facts about Nike have had time to come out and the facts about Apple’s processes overseas are still very hidden to the public. I wonder if Apple will have the same reputation as a company like Nike in a couple years, once the sales and hype around Apple’s new products dies down.

    Posted by Lauren Daley | February 7, 2012, 11:37 am
  2. Wow Beth – what an idea. I too, an Ipod and Macbook owner and lover, had never thought about where my products came from. I suppose that’s because Apple, to my knowledge, has never been in the news for mistreatment of their workers. Compare that to an equally famous company like Nike or Starbucks, who have been destroyed in the press for sweatshops, underpaid laborers, and unorganic/unsustainable practices (specifically Starbucks). But in a society where Apple is revered for being ahead of the curve and their fabulous marketing practices, thinking about the other side of the product is really quite rare.

    Thank you for the eye-opening post. It’s quite disheartening to realize that many of my belongings may have a similar backstory, although I certainly appreciate the eye-opener.

    Posted by Caitlin H. | February 7, 2012, 11:57 pm
  3. Beth, great post about the true origins of our apple products. It is sad to say, but I’m not surprised this is how apple products are made. Many of the large corporations use cheap labor to keep a competitive edge in the market place. I think an even deeper ethical question to ask is how much is worker abuse worth to us? As Caitlin pointed out, Nike got slammed for sweatshops. However, Nike is still around and is doing great. It might be that people are outraged by the conditions of these factories and sweatshops but in the end rather have the finished product. I guess a good question to ask yourself is are you going to stop buying apple products? I myself am guilty of buying products from Nike well after I knew about the media storm and read the Nike case study.

    Posted by ChrisB | February 8, 2012, 7:11 pm
  4. TAL is one of the best shows around in any format. For fun, check out any of the poultry ones. Also, David Sedaris’ elf story… so glad you found it.

    Love, love, love the Siri story. Siri under the hot spotlight of interrogation is both amazing and troubling.

    Posted by Jordi | February 8, 2012, 7:33 pm
  5. After you received best post last week, I decided to comment on your post. I think that it is extremely useful to read about as I often disregard media on child labor and sweat shops unless it is forced upon me. I have to admit that I knew very little about the whole Nike scandal before reading the case study. As awful as it is, I also agree that people must recognize that the majority of big successful companies have poor conditions or labor practices. One thing I will say is that it is hard to stop buying products just because of that. I know my friends and I play with siri like it is a built in extra person!

    Posted by Catherine Gibbons | February 12, 2012, 3:24 pm
  6. I had to comment on this, even though it was last week’s topic because this really hit home. It’s so true that I’ve never thought about where Apple products are manufactured and what kinds of conditions they’re manufactured in. Not to be cynical, but I feel like every week there’s another company uncovered and exposed for manufacturing their products in terrible conditions with workers making terribly low wages and yet risking limbs to produce effective and efficient results. However, while I am surprised to see such terrible working conditions that Apple is using to make their products, it probably won’t persuade me from not buying their products. The fact is, their phone is far and above any product on the market right now, and their Mac operating systems are pretty damn impressive. The reason why so many companies outsource their manufacturing overseas is simply because it’s cheap, and they can (many times) get away with the bad working conditions, and the exploitation of workers. Some companies are more unlucky than others in terms of PR, but Apple’s products are so impressive and unique – as compared with their competition – that I’m confident these terrible manufacturing conditions will mostly go unnoticed.

    Posted by Ben K. | February 14, 2012, 9:38 pm

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