Friday, May 25, 2012
Innumerable Labors Bring Us this iPad
Interdependence means that everything intersects with everything else. It is the sense that "innumerable labors bring us this food," as a famous prayer begins. The broccoli I ate last night consists of soil, water, air, sunshine, human labor, fuel (and thus pollution), the gas I used to heat more water to steam it, and so on. It all is involved. It all matters.
This is how nature works, but human minds are in the habit of separating things into arbitrary categories. To a practical extent, this is necessary for survival -- it helps us cross the street without getting killed. Beyond that, it creates ignorance and waste. This is why prayers before a meal, or at least a bow, serve a practical function: they help us maintain a habit of reflecting on the interconnection of all these "labors," so we don't forget, and eat with appreciation of the food's value.
We can extend this practice to consumer goods, as well. Who built this laptop computer I am working on? What conditions do they work under? Are they fairly compensated for their work? Have I gotten a lower price for this equipment at the expense of their safety? These are relevant questions, not to obsess over but to remember and ask.
The late Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple and reportedly a Buddhist believer or practitioner, was probably exposed to the teaching of interdependence as described above. Yet it did not seem to influence his leadership of this gigantic company. (Click here for a letter I wrote to Steve Jobs a year ago.)
In January, the New York Times published a vivid account of the lives of workers in the Taiwanese Foxconn plant where the iPhones and iPads many of my friends and relations enjoy. The revelations were not exactly new. Jobs was aware of the conditions at Foxconn and was reportedly dismissive of the suffering there, and of the prospect (raised by President Obama in person in 2011) of repatriating some of that labor. The January report did, however, come at a time when Jobs's successor, Tim Cook, demonstrated an interest in improving the quality and safety of factories and warehouses serving Apple in tighter relations with its contractors.
The condition of those who build our tools and our toys, who bring us our food, who deliver our supplies and maintain the stores we frequent, are often invisible to us, but it still matters. Cheap prices do not come cheaply from those who labor. What we enjoy privately and profit from, is paid for in human labor and material cost.
Under Cook's leadership, Apple has agreed to allow a third-party organization to monitor and report on conditions at Foxconn -- a step above what Jobs was willing to do. Yet the independence of this organization is important, and questions arise upon learning that the organization is funded by industry. If this is just a show, a case of industry claiming to police itself, in order to ease consumers' consciences, it is meaningless.
[Image: Apple CEO Tim Cook visits Foxconn this spring.]