What’s in a Brand?

Capitalism is a foul amoral creature. On one hand it rewards ingenuity, co-operation and a certain empathy needed to appeal to people to buy your products. On the other hand it rewards slave labour, wanton destruction of the environment and disgusting business practices such as planned obsolescence. It seems like an arms race, for every new regulation that is made (standard minimum wage) a new shady business practice is created (outsource production to underdeveloped countries were labour is cheap).

Take Apple for instance. They came under a lot of scrutiny because the image of their brand – globally conscious, user friendly, simple and easy to use – came into direct conflict with their business practices. They outsourced the production to Foxconn, a company in China who runs factories with appalling conditions. I cannot stress how atrocious these conditions were. 12 hour shifts of back breaking work without a break or being able to sit down, working with constant toxic fumes, no talking, no socialising just work. In 2010 18 workers attempted suicide, 14 succeeded. These 14 workers were deemed to have previous mental issues before coming to work for Foxconn and this is why they eventually committed suicide. Foxconn’s response? Put up safety-nets so people couldn’t commit suicide anymore.

When this story broke, people’s outrage went up, their indignation went up, yet Apple’s profits went up. Which, in all fairness, is what I expected. We’re so disconnected from the suffering of people it would probably take a trip to Chengdu to see these appalling factories for ourselves before we would boycott Apple products. There is too much incentive to buy a cheap iPhone and enjoy your shiny new product than there is to effect any meaningful change. It’s much easier to tweet from your iPad that you’re disgusted with Apple and continue to use it than there is to sell your iPad, or better yet give it to a less privileged person and demand that Apple ensure it cares about the way their products are made.

Nevertheless, people protested and Apple responded. They issued statements that they would launch a formal investigation into the situation and ensure that Foxconn treat its workers better. Did it work? A little, but not enough. It took 14 people dying before the issue was even talked about. No one bothered to ask. But that’s capitalism. It’s a beautiful yet treacherous thing. I sit here with my subway salad, the plastic container probably comes from China, the tomatoes from Pakistan, the lettuce from Queensland, the chicken (if it even is chicken) from Peru. Spinach from South Africa, Carrot from New Zealand, plastic fork from India. I can’t even begin to imagine the face of the person who hand-picked the tomatoes, or shaped the plastic container into the modern work of art that it is. And to be honest, is it bad that I don’t really care to? Until I find out that a 2 year old was forced into doing it and his parents were tortured if he didn’t work fast enough I probably won’t end up caring. Does this disconnect from the things we buy and the food we eat a bad thing? I’ll think about it while I eat my salad.

References:

‘The Labor Question in China: Apple and Beyond  R Litzinger, 2013

“The truth of the Apple IPad behind Foxconn’s lies”  SACOM 2005 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3YFGixp9Jw

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War, Peace and the Telegraph

We have truly transcended time and space. You could be reading this from anywhere at any time. It’s really hard to conceive what life was like before the advent of the internet, before the advent of the telegraph even – the first technology that enabled us to transcend time and space. Things would’ve been PAINFULLY slow. I would have no idea how my favourite basketball team was doing (Golden State Warriors). I’d have no idea when my favourite artist was touring (Danny Brown). I wouldn’t be able to organise things in advance with my friends, who’d almost certainly not be my friends (everything would be influenced by how close it is to me) I wouldn’t be playing basketball, I wouldn’t be on here writing this and what a tragedy that would be.

It’s hard to understand how much the world changed with the invention of the telegraph in the 1830’s-40’s. Being able to message London from Washington and receive an immediate response was groundbreaking. As Tom Standage says ‘the general public became participants in a continually unfolding world drama’. It’s hard just to realise how much the world changed, how much the world was opened by instantaneous communication; Domestic and international affairs, news, military combat, politics, social life – everything became much more inclusive once people were no longer restricted to geography. Having access to the telegraph was a great benefit compared to those who didn’t have access.

Of course the telegraph ran into some issues. When Britain went to war in the Crimea, they announced in London the amount of ships and troops that were to be deployed. The London Times, looking to capitalise on the public interest of the war faithfully reproduced the exact numbers and nature of British planning, letting the British public know but having the unfortunate secondary symptom of informing the Russian enemy. It took a while to get used to, the fact that information was spreading so quickly and easily. Before the telegraph information only travelled as fast as ships could said, but after the telegraph… A different story was told altogether.

Battle of Crimea, 1853-6

But people were quickly to adapt to this new technology as shown in a Franco-Anglo skirmish in North Africa in 1898. Forces led by British Commander Lord Kitchener came into hostile contact with French forces led by Major Marchand in Sudan. Kitchener had access to telegraph via British laid cable, one that went through Africa then via France into London, and one that went from Sudan then to Egypt and then straight to England. Kitchener cunningly sent a telegram straight to Britain detailing the extent of the situation, comparable forces, no clear sign of victory or defeat, but then sent another one via France detailing that Marchand’s forces were lacking morale and nearly out of supplies and water. The French, only able to go on Kitchener’s information, quickly withdrew, no blood was spilled and it was a victory for Britain.

References:

‘War and Peace in the global village’ T Standage, 1999

‘Fashoda Incident of 1898’ D Bates, 1984