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I, iPhone

The latest episode of This American Life follows the story of Mike Daisey and his investigation into the origins of Apple products, especially the iPhone which is “Made in China.”

What might the iPhone say if it could speak for itself? Ira Glass provides some answers to such a question in the opening moments of this episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” It’s illuminating that Daisey half-jokingly describes his devotion to Apple products in religious terms (this doesn’t prevent him from using the Lord’s name in cursory fashion, however).

Just like the pencil in Leonard Read’s essay, “I, Pencil,” the iPhone is “a mystery,” one “taken for granted by those who use me, as if I were a mere incident and without background. This supercilious attitude relegates me to the level of the commonplace. This is a species of the grievous error in which mankind cannot too long persist without peril.”

There are many, many lessons to learn from the story of I, iPhone. One of these lessons has to do with the dignity of the various people who work together to invent, assemble, market, sell, and distribute such wonders. This is where This American Life largely focuses its energies in this episode.

Another lesson has to do with the lessons about global trade and interdependence. In his book Work: The Meaning of Your Life: A Christian Perspective, Lester DeKoster leads us through a thought experiment, in this case having to do with “I, Chair.”

As seeds multiply themselves into harvest, so work flowers into civilization. The second harvest parallels the first: Civilization,
like the fertile fields, yields far more in return on our efforts than our particular jobs put in.

Verify that a moment by taking a casual look around the room in which you are now sitting. Just how long would it have taken you to make, piece by piece, the things you can lay eyes on?

Let’s look together.

That chair you are lounging in? Could you have made it for yourself? Well, I suppose so, if we mean just the chair!

Perhaps you did in fact go out to buy the wood, the nails, the glue, the stuffing, the springs—and put it all together. But if by making the chair we mean assembling each part from scratch, that’s quite another matter. How do we get, say, the wood? Go and fell a tree? But only after first making the tools for that, and putting together some kind of vehicle to haul the wood, and constructing a mill to do the lumber, and roads to drive on from place to place? In short, a lifetime or two to make one chair! We are physically unable, it is obvious, to provide ourselves from scratch with the household goods we can now see from wherever you and I are sitting — to say nothing of building and furnishing the whole house.

There’s much more to unpack just from these two lessons, of course.

How much of our expectations about the conditions of workers are simply culturally hegemonic forms of colonialism? Don’t Americans tend to assume that the ideal is immediately possible? What about the difficult choices that actually face workers in other countries in their concrete situations?

On these kinds of choices, consider Nicholas Kristof’s “In Praise of the Maligned Sweatshop” (Kristof is also heard from in this episode of This American Life): “We in the West mostly despise sweatshops as exploiters of the poor, while the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities.”

As we listen to Daisey’s story, our natural instinct is revulsion. We certainly wouldn’t want to live and work that way. And even apart from concerns about cultural colonialism, Daisey documents real abuses that ought to make both consumers and producers reassess how things are done.

And so what might it mean for someone else to have the opportunity to work their way out of such situations, to have more choices than the binary options of industrial manufacturing and subsistence farming (or starving), and to have these opportunities not merely individually but corporately?

What might true compassion, which places us within the context of the other person in their concrete situations, mean in these kinds of settings?


Jordan J. Ballor is associate editor at the Acton Institute.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute — www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission.)


  • Thaumatology

    The thing that generally tends to raise our hackles though is NOT when a “sweatshop” develops naturally in a developing economy, by those who live there… but rather we get offended when people from the developed west – your Nike, your Martha Stewart, et al set up sweatshops in these places.

    There is a huge difference between the “natural” state of development of a people, and far more developed outsides exploiting it.

    • Mary Kochan

      Well, if you go to these countries, I think you will find that there are locals who set up and run these things and then sell the labor to a western country. However, the problem is this: An american company CAN increase its costs to provide better working conditions, but another company will come along and outsource to a sweatshop. Once the respective goods hit our shores, which one will the consumer buy? Usually the one that costs less. It is the American consumers that are driving this whole thing, not the “companies”?

      • Thaumatology

        Since this is a Catholic blog and not a business one, I will go ahead and say “so what?” :-p

        The world isn’t fair, I get that… But isn’t that the point? Aren’t we supposed to be better?

        I see the argument of “if I don’t do it my competitor will” to be bogus. Certainly it makes perfect economic sense. And certainly if we’re atheists, why wouldn’t we? :-p

        The idea that we can’t do the right thing because there will always be someone else willing to do the wrong thing just means that no one ever does the right thing?

        Here is the real thing that people don’t want to hear… We have a responsibility to raise the standard of living in other parts of the world, even if that means ours has to decline a little.

        • Mary Kochan

          Right, this is a Catholic site: http://www.catholiclane.com/greed-is-a-real-sin/

          We really lean (at least I do) more toward localism, distributism, agrarianism. So I am not making an exuse, just expalining the reality — that these opportunities to exploit are driven by the American consumers and as long as we live in a fallen world, there will alwasy be some business to meet those demands. meanwhile those who want to do right have to watch out that they don’t kill their own business in the meantime.