Shiny Objects

This past week, I like many others, relished in the news of Apple’s latest addition to it’s iPad product line. I’ve been on an iPad 1 for some time so I was comfortable and resolute in my immediate pre-order purchase of the latest iPad. Firmly into the 21st Century we are now walking hand in hand with the most mind boggling innovation cycle in the history of man combined with some very stark realities on how the demand for this innovation is met.

The death of Steve Jobs solidified one the most jarring juxtapositions of our time. On one hand, if you are a believer in Steves accomplishments (like I am), you are in awe at the way he fused the arts with science to create the worlds most valuable and influential technology company. Apple has created a product line that revolutionizes the way we communicate, create and take in information. The world will never be the same. On the other hand, there is something troubling about the make shift shrines that were erected outside of Apple retail stores upon Steves death. Here we have this counter culture acid-head rebel being worshipped outside of a store that sells products for thousands of dollars. Look up irony on the dictionary.

Long before the iPhones release in June of 2007 I lusted after the shiny objects that Apple made. The effect that these products had on my life not only entertained me but also helped me to define my own creative voice. To be honest, I’m not so sure that I’d have a career in the digital arts if it weren’t for the early inspiration that the two Steve’s brought me. However, like any good robot consumer I consumed these products without the slightest notion or curiosity as to where they came from or how they were made. It was like the magic Apple fairies just made these shiny little boxes in the North Pole. I never thought to connect the dots that oil was used to make the plastic casing or that actual people would need to be used to put these things together.

Mike Daisey, the performer and writer of the explosive New York play “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” said to Playbill:

“We live in denial about China: a relationship that so disturbs us that we pretend our devices are made in magical Willy Wonka-esque factories by space elves instead of the real human cost we all know in our hearts has been paid. This moment is an opportunity to peel back the surface and get at the secret heart of our relationship with Steve Jobs, his devices, our labor, and China itself.”

The history of supply chains and the manufacturing process that feeds them is quite complex. The industrial revolution gave birth to the America we know today and put America at the forefront of innovation. America was suddenly fused together with the ability to capitalize on that innovation by creating an assembly line that supported the massive demand for the new products. That assembly line gave way to a low cost streamlined way of making products that accomplished two things: jobs for the working class and reasonably priced goods that the same working class could afford to use or by. It was a dream scenario. Products and services were made and fed by each other in the same system of supply and demand.

Take this example (via WikiPedia) of Andrew Carnegie’s significant accomplishments:

One of his two great innovations was in the cheap and efficient mass production of steel by adopting and adapting the Bessemer process for steel making. Sir Henry Bessemer had invented the furnace which allowed the high carbon content of pig iron to be burnt away in a controlled and rapid way. The steel price dropped as a direct result, and was rapidly adopted for railway lines and girders for buildings and bridges.

If you follow the bouncing ball you can see how this single act created a domino effect that changed our lives. Cheap steel gave way to railroad expansion which gave way to freedom of movement and physical growth around the country. Steel cores gave way to skyscrapers and later on to automobile production. And so on and so on, you get the idea.

The same logic can be applied to the products that Apple products have had on the West. There are millions examples of how the personal home computer gave power back to the individual and fostered a creative revolution. Early on in Apples formative years many of the products were made in the US. It’s almost hard to imagine now given that the global manufacturing climate has changed so much.

Ok, so what changed? In the late 20th century, de-regulation grew and combined with new international free trade polices that gave companies the ability to make their products much cheaper than they had been made before. This meant outsourcing to the cheapest bidder, mainly China. This eliminated America’s ability to both create and supply products for the middle class. What rose in the background were millions of workers who made these products in what we now refer to as “sweatshops.” We now know that every single Apple product is made in an environment that overworks the employees, underpays them by American standards and stresses them out to the point that even suicide has been an option.

Who’s to blame here? Is it the player of the game or the game itself? Or both? And, we have to ask ourselves honestly: is the Apple tarnished?

In Walter Isaacson’s biography “Steve Jobs”, he conveniently skips over Apples transition from American factories to Chinese factories in favor of focussing on Steve Jobs, the person. However, in the middle chapters he does give light to Steve’s obsession with Apple’s early factory lines in Northern California. Steve was obsessed with the way they physically looked and operated drawing off the notion that if any part of the products DNA was compromised then the whole product would be compromised. I can’t imagine that Steve took the same care to aesthetic perfection in the Chinese factories.

So how do we change this? Many far left liberals are calling on Apple to stop the whole practice all together. Let’s look at some harsh realities with that notion. Apple is a publicly traded company therefore, it’s main goal is to turn a profit which then keeps the stock price high and investors happy. Using todays math under the current rules of the game, if Apple were to engage on the popular grassroots campaign that’s being called “make the iPhone 5 ethically”, profits would fall, the stock would plummet and the same people that green lit the “ethical iPhone 5” campaign would get fired. A core pillar of Apples profit center has come from a miracle supply chain story that is rooted in cheap manufacturing in China that can keep margins high while meeting the worlds obsessive product demands. Therefore, making the iPhone 5 in America under American employment standards is not option under the current model.

Next, when China opened it’s doors to the outside much of their reason for doing so came from a place of “look, we have one billion people here who are ready to work. bring us jobs.” This thinking immediately took China out of a rural migrant farm worker culture to that of pollution filled urban sprawl that has seemingly countless numbers of people who are willing to work for very little money on products that they can not afford to buy. China was desperate to jump into the modern world and this was a ticket to the party. The simultaneous deregulation of global business synced up perfectly with this new panacea of cheap labor. You had global companies, like Apple, that wanted to increase it’s profits and you have a country that has the work force and desire to become a global super power. Both set of mutually exclusive goals were accomplished. What happened in the space between was not thought through or possibly even considered.

For the most part I am a believer in the Global Village and that the more communication brings us together the more borders disappear and we become connected to each others challenges and triumphs. What happens in China is not so far away anymore that it can be ignored. The philosophical view of how humanity can operate as a collective conscious is valid and necessary as our population grows and as the challenges of the modern world become more apparent. Now, as we strive for a new world paradigm we are however caught in the grips of an old world order that we also can not ignored.

What can be done in a reasonable manner about the person who works at the sweat shop making iPads? And what can done to not judge the employer, in this case Apple, who is playing by the rules? China itself has done very little to regulate worker conditions. No one is forcing these Chinese workers to take these jobs at FoxConn, in fact these jobs are in very high demand. Potential new workers line up by the thousands to try and get a new job at FoxConn. The Chinese cultural view on stable employment is so different than ours that it’s hard for us to understand the context which immediately leads us to blaming and judging. Add to that, any CEO of a public company is burdened with turning a profit for their company so making stuff in China is a good idea for the books. The point is that the game is rigged and there’s no way to win. I’m not endorsing Apples treatment of workers. It pains me to play with my iPad knowing that these young Chinese workers were eating poor food and sleeping in these cramped dorms when assembling this beautiful device.

There aren’t too many options that could fix this but there are a couple. China would need to collapse from their highly leveraged market and the balance of manufacturing power would once again shift. Or the throngs of Chinese workers could uprise organically and demand better conditions and pay and form a union. The latter is most likely and even a hopeful outcome. Doubling Chinese worker pay is actually reasonable, probable and would keep Apple still very profitable. If you’re wondering, moving the manufacturing to US based factories is not an option. That ship sailed quite some time ago. Let it go.

This post is more about observation that solutions. To me, it’s fascinating and impossible to ignore that this very MacBookPro I’m writing this blog with is tainted with the pains of the human spirit being pushed too far.

About a month ago, Nightline was granted unprecedented exclusive access to the FoxConn Apple manufacturing plan (link below). Reporter Bill Weir drops a bomb of a soundbite at the end which is, for better or for worse, true; “In our current world you can either be the country that makes this stuff or the country that lines up to buy this stuff but you can’t be both.”

If you choose to blame Apple and to take a stand then you have to take a stand on all Chinese exports. That means you wouldn’t a single piece of electronic equipment in your home or automobile. Do any of you see yourself doing that? If you choose to single out Apple because they have brilliantly exploited a flawed rule book then you are blaming the player and not the game. Apple is experiencing what’s called “The Nike Effect.” They are not the only company making their products this way. They are merely the most iconic brand doing it. “Think Different” has been stamped in our psyche so deeply that it’s hard to make sense of the contradiction.

I will continue to live in both worlds. Simultaneously I’ll be be troubled about these worker conditions in China while I continue to purchase the devices. It is my hope that we can do both while bringing awareness to the issue that may come up with a better solution. Long term, it’s great that Apple has been singled out because the amount of global attention it brings to matter is valuable. Awareness is a good first step. For most of us, it’s too late to turn back from how these innovations have effected our lives. They are part of the fabric. I don’t see too many of us lining up to stop buying electronics. The harsh realities of how these products made are now part of the fabric and the ever growing juxtaposition of the modern world. I believe with enough exposure and openness about the issues we can find a solution that pleases all sides.

Watch Nightline get exclusive access to Apples iPad and iPhone factory, click here

Steve Jobs and Jerry Garcia in India!

It’s been well documented that Steve went to India in 1974 in search of enlightenment. I have no idea if Jerry Garcia ever went. This is post is about neither. Rather, it’s about how I just met both of them on my recent trip to India.

Upon my departure I loaded up my iPad with 10 or so books that I thought would be essential reading while in Rishikesh and Vrindavan, two very holy cities where the bhav is plentiful. One of which was “Steve Jobs” by Walter Issacson. Also on my iPad were your basic go-to spiritual manuals like The Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam.

Sunset on the Ganga, Rishikesh

On the plane flight over I was well into the Steve Jobs book and found myself getting more and more sucked into the story of how two guys started a company in their garage that later became the worlds most valuable technology company. Even as I arrived in India and was settled into my daily routine I just couldn’t seem to put it down. I was occasionally going back to the Gita but time and time again the Steve book seemed to have all the instruction and inspiration that I needed while enjoying my own spiritual meanderings in India.

The new agers and touchy feely types decry the Steve story as a downer because he often times wasn’t such a nice guy. He was brash, rude, insensitive, sometimes dishonest and didn’t display behavior of that of a counter culture infused guy from Northern California. All that is true. However, that’s not what his story is about. If you’re reading the book to try and find value in him as a model human being that’s missing the point. Rather the book is about one mans ability to manifest the things he held dear to him, without compromise. It’s the story of one mans dharma. What more appropriate thing can you read about while in India?

Steve has the ability to strip out the clutter and distractions that got in the way of realizing his vision for creating products that fused together technology and the humanities. He was not the best programmer or engineer or even business mind around, but he had a vision for how human beings could build relationships with digital interfaces. Those interfaces had a variety of applications over the years that changed the way we live and behave on a daily basis. Indeed, our entire persona of life in the digital age has roots that go back to something that Apple did within the last 30 years. Steve was a modern avatar who slashed and burned his way to success but through it I found that he was also a shining example of someone who found what he loved to do and then did it. That is discipline. I can’t think of too many modern examples who had such a clear vision of how they saw their little slice of the world and had to share it with people no matter what. In life it is about adding all the things that make you a better person but it’s also about getting rid of the extraneous clutter that is preventing you from realizing potential. Just as Steve slashed most of the Apple product line upon his return in 1996, I look to slash most of my personal product line that no longer serves any purpose. Simplify.

That’s the end of the first part. On to my second story.

After Rishikesh I went to Vrindavan. While there, I did get the typical bug that shut me down for 24 hours. It was about my 12th day on this trip. I was laying in bed not able to hold anything down and feeling really distant from why I went there in the first place. I was sick, it was dirty and noisy. Temple life was rigid and predictable. And most importantly I was losing site of the person I wanted to be. Embarrassingly, I thought I was doing this for all the wrong reasons like fashion or because it felt “cool”. I kept asking myself why did I have to go half away around the world to get closer to my guru when I could have just as well found him in the cozy confines of my Culver City home. I just didn’t know what I was really doing or why I was doing it. It was a dark night.

As I was laying there it occurred to me that I hadn’t listened to any western music in nearly two weeks. I thought that perhaps a nice way to distract myself from feeling lousy inside and out was to listen to some music. So I got out my iPod, hit the shuffle button and just took in what was to unfold and once again reshape my experience. The first song to come up was Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong’s song “Isn’t this a lovely day?”. The soothing subtle nuances of Ella and Louis immediately warmed my heart and took me back to my childhood home in 1989 where I could see my parents just hanging out being in love by the fireside. They loved Ella and Louis and no music epitomizes their love more than that. Getting warmer, cozier…slowly feeling a manifestation of spirit. I was feeling love for my parents together and how it used to be, which doesn’t happen too often.

The next track to come up was by the Grateful Dead, it was a 1973 version of “Eyes of the World.” More than any other music the Grateful Dead really is the soundtrack of my life. I think you can guess what happened next. Less than 2 minutes into the song I got the chills from the familiar strains of Jerry’s guitar and the music then set forth in motion a complete overhaul of my attitude, thinking, perception and overall happiness. It all made sense. I knew exactly why I was India and I loved it!

Now it’s funny that the intangible can produce a tangible physical experience. What is it about sound that can trigger emotions which can then trigger thoughts which can then shape your experiences? By merely listening to a performance of a song the seemingly confusing state of my spiritual emotions suddenly went away. The music fixed me! One could add another fascinating tangent to this discussion – how matter and energy is really connected to the same “stuff” which leads to a realization of how the material world and the spiritual world may not be as far apart as we may think.

But this non-dualist probing will be saved for another post.

It’s funny that I traveled so far to be in the presence of such mystical and wonderful places and traditions but in the end the things that were already nearest and dearest to me are what brought me closer to those mystical and wonderful things! That really speaks to the point of what being a seeker all about. It’s so important to remember to not get caught in the trap of searching for something outside of yourself in hopes of attaining some goal. The external things that you may be investigating as methods or tools are really just conduits to bringing you closer to what’s already dwelling inside. That familiar love is always right there. Trying to avoid traps along the way…

I found Jerry Garcia in Steve Jobs in India!

Apple tid bit

Michael Dell on what he would do with Apple in 1996 “”What would I do? I’d shut it down and give the money back to the shareholders.”

Dell now has a $25.82 billion capitalization, with sad sales and margins. Apple is now at $338.39 billion, with insane sales, profits and margins. Poor Mickey.