The tension of Apple and justice

October 11, 2011

Like most designers on the web, I mourned at the news of the death of Steve Jobs. I’ve been a fan of his, the culture he created at Apple, and the iconic products he and folks like Jonny Ive have created, for many years. He truly was a remarkable person and, I think, a person who truly cared about making the world a better place. You can see this from any number of video clips of his talks at Apple events, or at graduations, or in random interviews. And he’s truly done this, in a number of ways.

Many of these ways have made life better for many people. People have learned to believe that it is possible to make a difference in the world, that the dreams are worth following and the risks are worth taking, and this has led to businesses and organizations that have revolutionized activism or art or both, to name a few, just as Apple has revolutionized the industries it engaged. The extent to which the world would be a less beautiful place without Steve Jobs and the Apple he created is impossible to measure, and that needs to be celebrated and continued.

But there’s also a weird tension between the beautiful things the company has done and created, and its own entanglement in issues of systemic injustice. From the time Apple’s designs leave Cupertino and need to be produced for us to buy, they have created, sustained, contributed to, benefited from, or failed to stop systems that oppress the people who make instead of buy their products.

The constant violence over minerals for phones and computers in the Congo, and the sweatshop-like conditions of factories like Foxconn in China, the environmentally damaging and unsustainable ways that these products get disposed, and the consumerism and materialism that they do, regardless of their intention, fuel - all these things entangle Apple in systemic injustice.

I don’t mention these few examples to pretend as though it’s a new issue. Capitalism, when it produces good things, almost always has this tension. It almost always has a dark underside (whether it produces good things or not), and it is in the interest of maintaining the status quo that these things are easy to hide.

I also don’t mention these things to pretend Apple is the only, or even one of the worst, offenders. This is what makes it so difficult - everyone in the electronics industry has the same issues. They all make products with bloody minerals from the Congo, and they all have stuff made at Foxconn or similar places. They are all decades behind in thinking about sustainability, whether environmental or personal.

Many people who buy these products don’t know anything at all about their supply chains. Maybe it wouldn’t change anything if they did, but maybe it would, and this is why it is important to tell these stories (to that end, start with Phone Story, Free2Work, and SlaveFree, to name a few).

Further, many of these companies have people who are thinking about these issues. Designers and engineers and marketing people all can, and would have to, contribute if they are to be resolved. Apple has many of the best of all of these. But so will users and potential users.

Most of us who talk about these issues, whether we are users or creators or both, are hypocritical when we do it. Whether it’s because we don’t know about alternatives, or because there aren’t alternatives yet, we are complicit in systems that oppress people. Confessing our complicity is necessary, but it doesn’t have to end there.

We can tell the stories and dream the dreams that people tell us are impossible, both about the products we use and the systems that create and contain them. Capitalism has always had these and other issues, and socialism had its own as well. But we don’t have to see that as the last word.

We live in the tension here. And it’s perhaps exemplified most by the fact that Steve Jobs, as much as any other in recent history, can teach us how to tell big stories and dream big dreams.