A documentary and other reports are helping bring to light the unglamorous struggles of workers who make the gadgets we love.
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Out of boredom late last night I flipped on my TV and chanced upon "China Blue," a PBS documentary about Jasmine, a 14-year-old girl in China working at a blue jean factory.
It would be hard not to be moved by the story of her tough life choices that made working in hard conditions in a China factory seem like a sad step forward. The story ends with Jasmine imaging the lives of the people who buy the jeans she makes, wanting to slip into the pocket of a pair of jeans a letter reaching out to them—if she would not be caught by her boss.
A recent story in Wired made a similar connection between our Western world of consumption and the Jasmines in China who supply us with our smartphones, tablets and 3-D LCD TVs. The author does a good job of documenting the conditions at Foxconn where Apple iPhones and iPads are made, noting that they really are a step up from the Dickensian history of that area.
He ends his piece with some pretty profound reflections.
"I believe that humankind made a subconscious collective bargain at the dawn of the industrial age to trade the resources of the planet for the chance to escape it," he said. "We live in the transitional age between that decision and its conclusion," he added.
In the jargon of the tech industry, people often throw around the concept of ecosystems. They typically mean groups of companies that create a community around specific technologies, like Apple's ecosystem of the companies who make iPhone cases, iPad covers, other accessories and a bazillion applications—good, hard, working people.
The folks at Foxconn and their peers often are not held up as equal members of these ecosystems. This is not just an Apple issue. In 20 years covering electronics, I have yet to hear any company acknowledge—let alone celebrate--the low cost laborers behind its products.
Yet these people play a critical role serving our cost conscious markets. Teardown specialist David Carey of TechInsights recently made the point in a public talk that the iPhone resembles a Swiss watch with many parts that must be painstakingly assembled by hand. I think of how I and other tech journalists have hammered on corporate execs for the sometimes high prices of their products.
As I start another work week as a tech journalist, I see one of the top stories of the day is speculation about the iPhone 5. It will have an even bigger display than the iPhone 4. At 6am Pacific time, there are 67 stories already posted on this rumor, and no doubt many, many more are yet to come.
Electronics technology is indeed a powerful and wonderful force, powering advances in medicine, space exploration—and just plain good fun. I already have two review tablets in addition to the notebook and smartphone my company provides, and a Google Chromebook on the way.
I thought I could use a little of this compute power to start my week with a story that at least helps in some small way point back to the forgotten people of our electronics ecosystem.