Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Capitalism + High Tech = shedding workers

You are terminated: The rise of the machines

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Rapid technological integration has been one of the overarching themes of the past few years, with new innovations being developed, incorporated and discarded at bewildering speed.

Twenty-five years after Philo Farnsworth first demonstrated an all-electric television to the press, a 1955 study put British television ownership at 30 per cent, which then spiked dramatically a few years later.

Facebook on the other hand now has more than 600 million users and was not launched until 2004.

Admittedly the innovation that Facebook was founded on - the internet - had a far longer gestation, but this infrastructure is one of the things which allows technology to become so swiftly adopted.

The other major factor is that it is now possible to sell an item of technology, very soon after invention, cheaply and to an enormous market, therefore making it first fashionable, then standard, then indispensable and ingrained.

The internet, mobile telephones and television - these things are so soundly integrated into society now that they are part of its essential framework.

Some countries now have mobile telephone ownership figures well in excess of population, particular high points being, perhaps unexpectedly, Montenegro and Saudi Arabia with 193 per cent and 170 per cent mobile telephone ownership respectively.

And naturally, since these things don't spring into being of their own design, they are manufactured somewhere, often in the Far East - largely China and Taiwan.

Our rapacious appetite for clothes is also often satisfied by Chinese labour, but to that you can add Indonesia, Malaysia and India among others - anywhere that labour is cheap and the labour laws are either relaxed or poorly enough enforced to ensure that the right number of goods get to market at the right price.

But this is not news.

This is how capitalism has functioned since the days of the British empire.

These are things we know and, in most cases, things we deplore.

The most recent technological furore has surrounded Foxconn, the largest private employer in China and the manufacturer of, among countless other gizmos, the iPod and iPhone, arguably the two most desired gadgets in the West.

To many they manage to remain fashionable, normal, indispensable and ingrained, which is a remarkable position.

Foxconn has been criticised over its labour practices repeatedly in recent years, and last year there were 14 suicides at one of its factories.

Foxconn has raised wages as a result, as well as taking measures to protect against future suicides, including the somewhat redundant measure of making workers sign contracts stating that they will not commit suicide and the alarming installation of anti-suicide nets ringing their factories.

Anyway, these are things many will know already.

But then why does Amnesty International, for example, have an iPad application?

It's of course possible that the increased awareness of human rights abuses fostered by such a tool outweighs the harm perpetrated through its platform, though the revenue is another matter.

The organisation paid its former general secretary Irene Khan over £500,000 following her resignation in February of this year, an impressive golden goodbye even without her £132,000 salary.

Exactly how this egress of cash helps the abused of the world is unclear.

We can only wonder, but one certainly hopes that the money raised by such promotional manoeuvres is spent responsibly.

Labour practices across the Far East have been deplorable since the age of the empire. Now people know what their purchasing decisions mean for the people at the other end of the supply chain, particularly concerning the likes of Apple, which made a net profit of $5.99bn in the first quarter of 2011.

But there's a blind-spot.

Even though the consuming public know the utterly abhorrent things that they are paying to have done to people, they just don't seem all that fussed by it.

This is the most perplexing thing of all - would you tolerate a gadget which had a built-in feature that radically shortened the life of someone you knew?

Of course not.

But the fact remains that millions of people knowingly gobble up short-life, luxury goods which come with a near guarantee that they may destroy the lives of nearly a million humans, in the case of Foxconn.

It's become normal to fetishise luxury technology, but consumers are not to blame - the mechanism through which these good are peddled is sophisticated, fiendishly planned and extremely effective.

For example, Apple's ad budget for 2010 was around $691m, a figure which is difficult to comprehend and frighteningly persuasive.

With such weight of influence it's easy to see why consumers who claim to care about the welfare of others do something that demonstrably harms them, by effectively rewarding firms for enacting unfair labour practices which only serve to drive manufacturing prices down.

It's easy to criticise the corporation that does the producing, and in fact it's quite satisfying to do so - it allows complaint and absolution to be combined into something that seems emotionally nourishing to the post-modern, technology hungry human being.

With this vicious circle spinning with ever greater speed it seems that the machines have already taken us over.

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