Archive for March, 2012

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.

Ellen Ullman: One Night At Tosca Cafe


Among the world’s best bars, there’s Tosca Cafe; and across the street, stands one of the world’s best bookstores, City Lights. Earlier this week, they teamed up to present a reading by Ellen Ullman of her new novel “By Blood.” It’s difficult to explain the kind of perfection this event captured. The literary history of San Francisco welled up in the room and presented the kind of event, anyone will tell you, never happens any more.

On floor 3b of the Mechanic’s Institute Library, there’s a section tucked around a corner that shelves the books of Marshall McLuhan. I’d been reading a lot of McLuhan and was scanning the section for new candidates for my reading list. My eyes passed over a title of a small book, “Close To The Machine.” I’d come and gone from that section three or four times before I finally picked up the volume. The title alone read like a poem. It was already inside something I’d been giving a lot of thought: our intimacy with the Network. Ellen Ullman wrote the book in 1997, long before the Network reached critical mass. She writes about technology with a facility and intimacy that’s very rare. Ullman is a programmer, critic and novelist with a view of the long arc of the culture of technology and the technology of culture.

Ullman’s second book was a novel called “The Bug,” and it continued to explore the world of computer programming and technology. At the reading, I asked her about the new book, “By Blood.” How and why did she decide to leave writing about technology behind? She answered that if she continued to write within the boundaries of technology, her work might stray off into the world of science fiction. Ullman’s work isn’t about the machine, it’s about being close to the machine, deep inside it, the strange intimacy we have with our technology. She said that she would continue to write essays about technology, but that her fiction would no longer be bounded by it. I look forward to both.

A Place For Our Infinities

A short piece of writing on our infinities: Gazing toward the stars, we discovered an infinite external universe. Looking inward, we recognized the capacity to hold multiple infinities in the grasp of our understanding. In our everyday life we attribute high value to things that exude a feeling of immortality. While some things we manufacture are meant to be ephemeral, in things of quality, we want something about them to last forever.

In thinking about infinities, and by this, I’m really referring to Tim Morton’s idea of very large finitudes, I was drawn in by the great plastic vortex in the Pacific ocean. This is location, created by ocean currents, where large deposits of granulated plastic swirl in an endless gyre. “Plastic” means something that can be molded, “plastic” is plastic. Not only can plastic take any shape, it can have a high level of durability while in use. The “mold-ability” of metals on the one hand and plaster on the other, find a mid-point in plastic. Plastic is a neutral material that functions like a simile. The plastic is like leather, it functions like ceramic, it gives the appearance of wood grain. Plastic never appears to us as plastic, it’s always “like” something else.

Plastic becomes itself again when it’s discarded. It’s no longer “like” anything; it “is” plastic. Different kinds of plastic have different lifespans. Some plastic, plastic bags for instance, have a lifespan of 30 to 60 years. A plastic bottle, on the other hand, has a lifespan of 300 to 500 years. The “use” of a plastic bottle may occur over 30 minutes, the time it takes to drink a soda or some filtered water. If that plastic bottle is part of the eight million tons of garbage that reaches the ocean every day, it may go on to have a long life as a piece of bottle-shaped plastic.

In the world of literature, we talk about immortal works. Art is long, but life is short. “Words” also have a plastic quality, they can be selected and sequenced in such a way to conjure up almost anything. The word “elephant” isn’t an elephant, but it can cause the reader to register neurological activity that is “like” that of seeing an actual elephant. We can even use words to describe things like an infinite series of numbers. Here we register neurological activity of something that we can’t actually see.

But much like the plastic bottle, texts have a lifespan. They aren’t immortal. On leap day of this year, philosopher Graham Harman shared some thoughts about the lifespan of books:

Books have a much, much higher childhood death rate than people. If a book makes it to age 21 and is still being discussed and still changing career paths, then it’s obviously a huge success.

I’m a great believer in classic books, but not at all a believer in “immortal” books. Plato will not be read one million years from now, though under certain scenarios he might still be read in another 2000 or 5000 years.

You can’t do “immortal” work because that’s quite impossible. The human species will probably be turning into something rather different that won’t much care about most of our supposedly immortal books and empires.

That said, there’s still a big difference between writing a book that’s readable for 3 years versus one that’s readable for 20, 50, or 500 years. That’s the scale on which very high-quality work announces itself as opposed to more transient period pieces– not the non-existent immortal scale.

In the age of the digital network, the ephemeral seems to gain a kind of immortality. Publishing written words is almost as simple as speaking. Once published to the Network, whatever it is, is there forever. And theoretically, it is findable via some method of search. In this sense, this immortal ephemera is like the plastic bottle–useful for a short amount of time, but possibly destined to a very long after life. Perhaps it is also swirling about in the gyre of some immense database. However, there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of life of a work that Graham Harman discusses and the life of a tweet saved forever in a networked database server.

When we discuss economies of abundance in the digital age, we’re assuming the low-cost production of very large finitudes. Plastic is this kind of thing, it’s the least expensive physical simile for a large range of objects. It also has the strange quality of sometimes having a lifespan that is five or six times that of an ordinary human. In this ecological age where we are newly surrounded by economies of abundance, what shall we do with our infinities? We can no longer send them away when we’ve annihilated distance through technology. The plastic as “plastic” waves to us from the gyres in the ocean. It will swirl there for our children and our children’s children. What ever shall we do with our infinities?