Steve Jobs and the Chinese Wall

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs hit the bookstores on Monday (or, worse, the websites that have replaced bookstores as the place where people go to buy books), and the more piquant details have already started popping up in the press. Among those details—actually, it’s a good deal more than details—is Jobs’s Manichean view of humankind (at least, those elements of humankind with whom he came into contact). As Michael Rosenwald summarizes it in Monday’s Washington Post:

In his personal life, [Jobs] was capable of seeing people in only two ways – as enlightened or as bozos. There was no in-between, and he would ruthlessly cast aside whoever he deemed a bozo…. Those who were deemed enlightened were granted the right to work with Jobs in his binary world where products were either ‘the best’ or ‘totally [expletive],’ Isaacson writes.

Isaacson’s description may make it easier to understand Apple’s production process, in which its products were designed to a fare-thee-well in Apple’s tony Silicon Valley headquarters, but manufactured in China in Foxconn’s compound in Shenzhen, where hundreds of thousands of workers turned out all the iPods, iPads and iPhones that have delighted consumers the world over. We might not know about the Foxconn compound but for the spate of worker suicides there that shook the plant, the province, and China itself last year. When investigators and journalists ventured into the compound, they found a factory complex worthy of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis—300,000 workers, many of them still in their teens, working long hours at piddling wages to turn out the latest in Apple technology, then domiciled together ten in a room. Their story is currently being related by actor-writer Mike Daisey, whose play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which premiered in D.C. this spring and is now at the Papp Public Theater in New York, veers between Daisy’s love affair with Jobs’s products and his revulsion at the Foxconn compound, which he visited several years ago.

Is Jobs’s indifference to the worker-bees who mass-produced his dream machines the key to Apple’s offshoring? Probably not. Apple isn’t even the only company that’s contracted with Foxconn to make its products, let alone the only U.S. multinational to go to China for production. Going to China for manufacturing is simply the normal way that American multinationals have done their business for the past decade. Going abroad for cheap labor has been the normal way of American business since General Electric Jack Welch CEO proclaimed that companies should answer only to their shareholders—not their workers or the communities they lived in—a full 30 years ago, and began moving the lion’s share of GE’s production from domestic factories to plants abroad. Shareholder capitalism, it turns out, is every bit as binary, as Manichean, as Steve Jobs’s assessment of humankind. In American business practice, as in Jobs’s psyche, ordinary workers don’t matter a damn. It doesn’t require a special animus to dismiss American workers and outsource their work to substandard factories hidden behind what is both an economic and a psychological Chinese wall.