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Small Ethical Events Loosely Joined

After word began to spread that “This American Life” was retracting their story based on Mike Daisey’s theater piece on the human cost of the production of Apple products in China, you could hear a sigh of relief. Our fall from ignorance could be reversed. We could unknow our knowledge about the means of production because a highly-reputable radio show had retracted a program.

Only you can’t unknow.

Apple is a beautiful target, sitting there all by itself, high on its pedestal. There probably isn’t a single corporation more in control of every aspect of its image. Rather than focusing on the technical specifications of their devices, they work on creating an emotional bond between the machine and its owner. This information about the human cost of the production of these devices is something out of Apple’s control. It’s a dark underside hidden behind the perfect illusion engineered by Steve Jobs and his team. Normally, we like to see the high and mighty fall. In this case, there’s a small problem.

As much as Apple, we the users, are the beneficiaries of human cost of the production method of their devices. There are very few consumer electronic devices with supply-constrained markets. We criticize Apple because they can’t make their products fast enough to meet demand. As supply and demand start to equalize, the next version of a device is released and starts the cycle again. It’s not just Apple that’s linked to these labor practices, it’s us, the people who buy the products.

And that’s the link we’d like to undo with the retraction of that radio program. But the reality is that the link isn’t going away, in fact, it’s multiplied. How many products in our lives are manufactured in China? We buy based on price, and goods manufactured in China are usually cheaper. For the most part, we don’t ask about the labor practices involved in manufacturing the products that populate our lives. Even if we could unknow what we know about Apple, we are linked to Chinese workers through thousands of other avenues.

One criticism of Apple is that they have too much control. They review every app that operates on their platform, they take a piece of everyone’s action, their platform isn’t open. But it’s only by virtue of this extraordinary level of control that we can point to these labor practices in China and say: “Hey Apple, what about this?” Apple does have published labor standards for their vendors, along with a yearly independent audit which they publicly disclose. They also have a vision and policies about the environmental impact of their products.

So far Android has avoided the spotlight. In most categories, Apple’s iOS products are compared with Google’s Android. In many categories Android leads the field, but the question of labor practices never comes up. Anyone can use Android, it’s an open system. Would it make sense to ask Google to withhold licenses to manufacturers that violate some set of labor standards? Could they even do that? What about the environmental impact of Android devices? The Kindle Fire and the Nook are also built with Chinese labor at Foxconn.

Once we open the door to these issues we begin to understand that even the electronic equipment used to report and broadcast the journalism telling us about the problem is afflicted with the problem. The story plays like a film noir where the detective investigating a murder comes to find that he’s implicated in the crime. The “Open” movement has a kind of morality, but it doesn’t extend beyond technological processes. It has nothing to say about labor standards in factories or the environmental impact of e-Waste on the emerging and frontier nations. The Open Web may be a network of networks, but it needs to acknowledge the even broader range of networks in which it’s already implicated.

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