Review: Goodbye iSlave
In Goodbye iSlave, author Jack Linchuan Qiu interprets the term “slavery” in relation to the electronics manufacturing industry. Like the title, most of the book’s content focuses on Apple and its supplier Foxconn, using the name “Appconn” to describe the alliance. Qiu’s concern is much more broad, though. In the opening pages, he writes, “The ailment of a Chinese factory, let me emphasize, is a symptom of global pandemic, for which Appconn is but one concentrated embodiment.”
This perspective was an important influence on my decision to read the book. I don’t need any more reason to mistrust Apple specifically, but I do purchase gadgets from other companies that operate in China (like Lenovo and Sandisk). I wanted to learn if and how I could justify my patronage of these companies.
Qiu begins with a historical analysis of slavery and some of the scholarship on the institution. He draws on numerous sources to make the case that the term is not dependent on violent coercion. That’s critical because violent coercion is reportedly absent at Foxconn, yet Qiu nonetheless considers employees to be enslaved. He does a pretty good job, protecting him from accusations of sensationalism and also justifying analysis on the similarities.
From there, he draws a number of parallels to modern day “iSlavery.” This includes the similarities between life on a slave ship during the Middle Passage and life as a worker at a Foxconn facility. Particularly creepy is the use of netting to deter suicide, common to both cases. He also discusses how refined sugar evolved from an indulgence to an all-but-necessary aspect of life in industrialized societies, and how the increased demand sustained the slave trade. Tech gadgets, Qiu argues, are the modern equivalent.
To me, the most interesting parallel was with the Roman familia Caesaris, introduced as follows:
In his masterpiece, Slavery and Social Death comparing dozens of slavery regimes from history and around the word, Orlando Patterson devotes a full chapter to those slaves who did not toil in poverty at the very bottom of the social pyramid. Instead, they were placed extremely close to the pinnacle of society while enjoying tremendous influence and affluence. This is best exemplified by the Roman familia Caesaris (slaves and freedmen serving the emperor directly or indirectly) and the Byzantine and Chinese eunuchs (who dominated certain periods of Byzantium and imperial China).
These were people who occupied some of the most privileged political, administrative, or bureaucratic jobs of their times, supervising the royal palace or manage the imperial coffers. Yet Patterson nonetheless defines them as slaves despite their elite status because their power “was utterly precarious; it existed solely at the whim, feeblemindedness, or design of the master,” in other words, the emperor who “needed persons who in lay had no separate legal identity but were simply living surrogates of their masters.”
While the term “iSlave” is maybe most likely to be interpreted as the factory workers who produce the products, Qiu’s definition is much wider. He describes those workers as “Manufacturing iSlaves” and also writes of so-called “Manufactured iSlaves.” The former group includes the fanatic consumers who participate in discussion forms and social media campaigns, promoting the giant corporations free of charge. While it’s pretty judgemental to call these folks “enslaved,” Qiu also sees slavery in the relationship consumers have with tech companies via their personal data. Sort of a more severe version of the subjugation Bruce Schneier describes with “Internet feudalism.” Anyway, that’s how the parallel to Byzantine eunuchs fits in.
Reading this book aggravated a question that’s bugged me for a while–why do the people of China exploit each other like this? Qiu has a surprisingly concise answer:
Why did China become home to Foxconn? Is it only because China has cheap labor? Why not other developing countries whose labor cost is but a fraction of China’s? State policy, regarding minimum wages for instance, is one decisive factor. Basic infrastructure also matters, along with polices for welfare, training, and education, as well as workers’ rights to organize, bargain collectively, strike, and picket. It is in these realms that one can clearly see, despite the rhetorics of New Economy, and uncanny return to old politics, to the interplay between capitalist and statist logics, be they competitive or corroboratory.
This all sounds reasonable to me, but I can’t help but take a cynical reading that “they do it because they can.” Then again, maybe there’s some empathy in that. Western nations may have a better reputation when it comes to workers’ rights, but it’s not due to any moral superiority. They’ve just developed more safeguards against our negative instincts.
In the end, Goodbye iSlave was far more academic than I expected. Probably I was influenced by discovering it through the general-interest Restart project podcast (courtesy Mozilla’s 2019 Internet Health Report). It shouldn’t have been a surprise, given Qiu’s background as a professor and given the publisher–the University of Illinois Press.
I certainly appreciate having more literacy in the cultural aspects of this problem, but I didn’t find much of the practical advice I was looking for. Beyond some passing criticism of excessive consumption, Qiu’s most direct advice for consumers in developed countries can be summarized as, “buy a Fairphone.” That may not be an oversight, though. Maybe the production lines are just too tangled and too opaque to allow for consumer activism. When it comes to my dying laptop, I’m stuck with the same unsatisfying strategy: try to repair it or else buy an after-market replacement. I’ll keeping looking for a better solution, but at least Qiu has shown that the situation isn’t as hopeless as I used to believe.