In adherence to the late Steve Jobs tradition, Apple unveiled the latest iteration of the iPhone in its annual keynote address. As expected, the world went bananas.
Though, surprisingly, this time around, the stir was not so much on what new techno-gadgetry was going to be there: Decent water resistance (Sony and Samsung approves), fancy dual camera system for the iPhone Plus (HTC did it first), a new jet-black colour scheme (notwithstanding their own bragging, Apple recommends a case so the gloss does not wear off), to say nothing of the brand new A10 Fusion chip and iOS 10. Rather, there was a bit of a media reaction on what is not going to be on board the mighty iPhone 7.
It is the humble, down-to-earth, no-nonsense piece of tech that is, as of now, the industry standard and virtually every phones’ staple: The 3.5 mm audio jack.
We, the ever-so-eager consumers, decided to call this ditch-the-jack-give ’em-Airpods manoeuvre controversial. Its controversial move was accompanied by all manners of online reactions: From the flippant, not to mention hilarious, tweets ridiculing Apple, to the more serious discourse on tech magazines debating the merits of this move.
Yet, what we ought to find controversial instead, is the harrowing finds of Amnesty International. In a January report, the organisation found evidence that cobalt used in lithium ion batteries, ubiquitous in smartphones, could be traced to mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo -- where the metal is extracted through backbreaking child labour and widespread worker-abuse by denial of basic safety procedures and dignified treatment.
These collected raw materials are then sold to Congo Dongfong Mining (CDM), a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Chinese Zhejiang Huayao Cobalt Ltd, and from there the metal is exported to three battery component manufacturers in China and South Korea.
In turn, they sell it to battery makers who supply it to this or that company. The same report named names too. Mind you, they were not some obscure third tier brands either. Among the possible companies at the end of the supply chain, the report mentioned Samsung, Sony, and Apple.
And here we are, clamouring over the loss of the audio jack and faulty Note 7s. If the impressive queue of enthusiastic fans and soon-to-be iPhone 7 owners at Apple retailers are anything to go by, we do not seem to be all that repulsed at the possibility of child labour contributing to our fancy smartphones and consumer electronics.
Nor is it the first time such dark stories have surfaced.
If the impressive queue of enthusiastic fans and soon-to-be iPhone 7 owners at Apple retailers are anything to go by, we do not seem to be all that repulsed at the possibility of child labour contributing to our fancy smartphones and consumer electronics
Back in 2012, the New York Times ran a front page article on Foxconn manufacturing plant, bringing to light the ghastly conditions in which workers worked as they assembled our beloved iPads, PlayStations, and Kindles.
Being coated with omnipresent aluminum dust, breathing in toxic chemicals, sleeping in crammed dormitories shared with 20 other people, and labour suicides over the abysmal situations were common. And there were even incidences of explosions due to poor ventilation of the said aluminum dust resulting in deaths.
None of this seemed to have much bearing on consumer behaviour anyway. That very year, iPhone 5 become a market hit and blew past its predecessor’s sales figures. Sony’s PlayStation sales figure did not plummet. And we just as readily bought our Kindles.
In other words, the sky remained blue, and that is all we seemed to have cared about. Even as late as 2016, there seems to be no clear improvement, or so claimed another piece in the International Business Times.
Still, an exclusive done by Bloomberg offered us a much more hopeful glimpse of yet another core manufacturing plant of Apple, Pegatron, where stringent rules were implemented to not allow any worker clock over 60 hours a week and enforced through use of turnstiles and ID checks.
And the fact that they let a foreign journalist in is a sign that there seems to be some improvement.
However, the same article said China Labour Watch was not impressed. Nevertheless, the public does not seem to care.
Controversy, what controversy?
And this does ring a bell of familiarity to us Bangladeshis. We are all too aware of the harsh reality of contract manufacturers. Some poor souls condemned to toil away the precious hours of their life to earn some meagre income, all under gross industrial neglect, with big Western names of Walmart and Sears reaping the benefits from the lucrative fruits of their disparate labour at the other end of the supply chain: The standard narrative of our prized garment industry.
Hence, the Rana Plaza disaster was something we were asking for. Yet, we reason that the people at Foxconn or Rana Plaza had signed up for this, quite knowingly.
In the end, the alternative of harsh labour is economic unemployment, accompanied by absolute destitution or even grittier labour in a derelict farm -- a view that is not entirely without merit. But to argue choosing the lesser of two harrowing options constitutes as choice, and justifies our business as usual attitude, is an absolute dubious standing.
But what are we to do? Cast away our Samsung smartphones? Strip ourselves of our clothes in protest? Orchestrate a Neo-Luddite movement? Not that I have any sympathy for Luddite sentiments to begin with.
But I don’t know. I truly don’t.
Nor can I deny the multitudes of benefit brought forth via these companies. Neither being a human rights expert nor an economic guru, it is beyond my capacity to propose a viable solution. And it needs to borne in mind, the multi-nationals can boost the economy too, and are not entirely without benefits, and are not rotten apples to be avoided at all cost.
Rather, I am here to point out that we never even pause to ask the right questions, the hows and whats and ifs. We seem to be incapable of looking past the brand logos to the supply trail and where it might lead.
It is the alarming silence on our behalf that is distressing. This total absence of active discussion and debate is what gets to me. And when we decide to cause pandemonium in the social media, in our sly tweets and witty Facebook statuses or scathing memes, it is about something as trifling as an audio jack.
In the end, it seems that the emergent tale, as sinister as it is, is not one of corporate greed, but of apathy of the masses.
Syed Raiyan Nuri Reza is a freelance contributor writing from Iran.