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How Your Gadgets Are Really Made

Those who’ve journeyed to China to see how electronic devices are made have been shocked by working conditions.
February 12, 2011

To watch industrial designer Scott Wilson’s mini documentary of the factories in China where his latest product is being realized is to be awed by the complexity required to create even simple objects.

It’s easy to imagine that the stuff we are surrounded by just happens – that it is assembled or vat-grown by machines in quiet, whirring factories that resemble the deck of a Cylon basestar. But what Wilson reveals as he captures workers creating a device for turning an iPod Nano into a wristwatch is that at every stage, from the construction of a silicone wristband to the machining of an aluminum housing, workers perform actions reminiscent of chefs in a kitchen or scientists in a lab.

I can’t embed his video here, but you can click through, below, to watch it in full:

It’s instructive to contrast Wilson’s halcyon scenes of orderly manufacture with the experience of Mike Daisey, life-long Apple fanboy, who also went to what may be the fastest growing city in the world – Shenzhen, China – to see how his iPhone was made. The short version: tortuous working conditions, low wages, laborers as young as 12, and on-the-job injuries going untreated and leading to lifelong disability.

Daisey is a monologist who operates like an investigative journalist: all his work is non-fiction, even though he delivers it in impassioned one-man shows in a theater rather than in print. For those of you who won’t make it to one of his shows, here’s one segment of an interview in which he sums up what he discovered:

Daisy describes what he witnessed as “Shocking… I expected labor conditions to be harsh… what I didn’t expect was the gratuitous level of inhumanization.”

Foxconn, where iPhones are manufactured, employs more than 400,000 workers. Practically every manufacturer you can name makes their devices there, so you can hardly avoid the firm by switching to another brand.

For a third take on how our gadgets are actually made, there’s the excellent 2005 documentary Mardis Gras: Made in China. It’s about how Mardis Gras beads are made, not gadgets, but what its makers discovered presages what Daisey saw. It’s hard to understand what laboring in a factory in China is actually like – few breaks, long hours, and a pace that requires workers to perform their highly repetitive tasks with the precision and speed of a machine.

The twist in this documentary, by the way, is that the workers in the Mardis Gras bead factory have no idea what Mardis Gras actually is. The filmmakers show them video of the event – women bearing their breasts in exchange for the very beads they’re making – and then turn around and show revelers at Mardis Gras video of the Chinese workers making their beads. The resulting clash of cultures makes this worth an hour of your time all on its own. (Mardis Gras: Made in China is available on Netflix.)

As more and more Westerners become aware of the conditions under which their gadgets are made – both the demanding nature of the work and the poor treatment of the laborers who perform it – some have asked whether or not it’s time for a “Fair Trade”-style certification for gadgets.

This seems like it should be a no-brainer: if Starbucks can advertise its social conscience by buying beans grown by workers who were guaranteed a fair wage and humane working conditions, why wouldn’t Apple or Nokia?

Steve Jobs’s response to one of the many individuals who have forwarded coverage of Daisey’s work was, according to Daisey:

“I don’t think Mike appreciates the complexities of the situation”

We can only hope that Jobs will consider taking Daisey’s advice, and using the next act of his career to address this issue:

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