Viewpoint

What TCO Really Means

How we can better serve the legacy of Steve Jobs.

The first time I saw an Apple computer was in 1982. I was temping for a Minneapolis agency that sent me to a small widget factory. The owner wanted me to input inventory numbers into a database on his brand-new personal computer, about which he was giddy with excitement. I thought it was pretty magical myself.

The next time I saw an Apple was in 1986, when I went to work as an editor for an educational software publisher. This time it was a Macintosh and I was truly blown away. I have been the proud owner of many Apple computing devices since then, and I have been a continual admirer of the company's human interface aesthetic.

So it was with great interest and, nine days after Steve Jobs' death, a heavy heart that I attended Mike Daisey's one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," at the Public Theater in New York. Some of you may have seen the show; if you haven't, here it is in a nutshell: Daisey speaks to his lifelong love affair with all things Apple and how Steve Jobs was a personal hero for him.

But when Daisey visits the factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are manufactured, his infatuation with pretty devices turns to disillusionment. There he encounters 13-year-old children who work 14- to 18-hour days; people in their 20s who have permanent hand deformities from executing the same repetitive motion day after day; and reports of daily suicides at the factory that are ultimately suppressed in the Chinese press (and largely ignored by the American press).

It was an uncomfortable experience, sitting in that audience and learning at what cost I enjoy my smartphone, my MacBook Air, and all my other electronic doodads. Indeed, Daisey makes the point that this is not an Apple problem; virtually all electronic devices are manufactured in Shenzhen, or places very much like it, under very similar working conditions. The problem lies with our voracious consumer culture that feeds the system.

I'm not suggesting we should stop buying electronics, but there are ways we can assert our power as consumers. We can e-mail Tim Cook, Apple's new CEO, to urge him to allow independent, outside verification of working conditions in Apple factories. Your institution can get involved with Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a Hong Kong-based human rights organization for humane working conditions in China. Several US university professors are on its advisory board. Find out how your campus can support its work. Also check out makeITfair.org.

Ultimately, we (who are part of an education community) need to educate ourselves and others to understand the true "total cost of ownership" of our computing devices: not just the cost to our pocketbooks, but the human cost to the people who make them for us.

Update: Since I wrote this editorial, some of Mike Daisey's personal accounts of his time investigating working conditions in China have been discredited by NPR's This American Life and other sources. When I first saw Daisey's stage performance, I was cognizant of the fact that this was theatre, not reportage, and before I wrote my editorial I did some follow-up research on his charges of child labor, long working hours, worker suicides, and other problematic working conditions he describes in his one-man show. I found news stories from credible sources and reports from human rights groups that corroborated Daisey's basic story, and felt that I had enough information to urge Apple--as well as consumers--to reconsider the pretty-devices-at-any-cost mentality that supports an inhumane manufacturing culture in China and elsewhere. Indeed, Apple itself has since acknowledged that it needs to step up its vigilance around the working conditions in its factories, a move that I have publicly supported in a subsequent editorial.

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