Suicide, stupidity, and the iPhone

Factory workers who can't stand to crank out even one more iPhone are killing themselves, while cell phone users careen about the highways

iPhones are made in a Chinese factory where conditions are so bleak workers throw themselves out the window in despair. In central Africa, the mining of coltan, tungsten, and other minerals crucial to the manufacture of cell phones has fueled a series of bloody civil wars. And did I mention that smartphone users kill themselves and others by driving while talking and texting, and even those who don't risk shortening their attention span to that of a mosquito?

Look: I love digital technology and I love to use it. And yes, I own a DVR and always carry my iPhone 3G S. But with the hype storm over the upcoming release of the iPhone 4 in full swing, it's a good time to put gadgets and their human costs into perspective.

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The iPhone suicides
Who doesn't like cheap? Bargains make us feel good, and any time we pay more for something than the next guy did, we feel diminished. Electronics makers know that, of course, and you might even say there's a corollary to Moore's law: The technology you buy today will be half as expensive in two years.

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The race for the bottom of the pricing ladder puts huge pressures on margins, so it's no wonder that nearly all of the cool devices we carry around are made overseas where labor is infinitely cheaper.

Which brings us to Foxconn, whose city-like factory complex in Shenzhen, China, houses 250,000 workers cranking out iPhones, iPads, and other gear for Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others. Also known as Hon Hai, Foxconn is the world's largest contract manufacturer, and it generates more revenue in a year than Microsoft. Last year it recorded net income of $2.3 billion, while paying employees about $300 a month.

So far this year, 10 Foxconn employees have committed suicide, and at least three others have tried to kill themselves. By all accounts, the Foxconn factory is not exactly Dickensian, but workers are obligated to accept two hours of overtime every day of the six-day workweek, aren't allowed to talk on the assembly line, and live 8 or 10 to a room in dorms on the complex grounds.

Something is really wrong there, and the fact that the suicide rate in the plant is slightly lower than that of the country as a whole is misleading. Given that all of the suicides happened at work, not at home, there's obviously a link between the work environment and the deaths. Commentators who dismiss the suicides as statistically insignificant or coincidental are way off base and playing the role of apologists.

Apple, Dell, and HP have all expressed concern about the deaths and conditions in the factory and say they are monitoring the steps Foxconn is taking to stop them. But all too often "monitoring" means ignoring. Nike didn't improve conditions for its workers in Asia until widespread bad publicity and consumer boycotts made it good business to clean up its act. So let Apple and the others know what you think.

iPhones and iDiocracy
Suicide-by-gadget is hardly an American phenomenon. When I was in Vietnam in 2008, I was appalled to see people texting while driving motorcycles that carried as many as two passengers. I'm not sure I've ever seen someone do something quite that stupid in the United States, but we come pretty close.

A study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Institute (an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation) found that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured. Though we might think that hands-free devices remove that risk, it turns out that few of us have the mental bandwidth to focus on more than one task while driving.

"You can be looking out the windshield and think you're paying attention -- but you're not," says David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah who has studied the use of cell phones are other electronic gadgets in automobiles.

Then of course there are the cell phone zombies who lurch out into the streets of San Francisco and other cities while talking or texting, oblivious to the cars and bicycles heading their way. And have you been to a café lately where people were actually talking to each other, rather than staring at a computer screen?

There's even evidence that using digital multitasking changes our brains -- and not always for the better. Consider this paragraph in Sunday's New York Times: "The technology is rewiring our brains," said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse and one of the world's leading brain scientists. She and other researchers compare the lure of digital stimulation less to that of drugs and alcohol than to food and sex, which are essential but counterproductive in excess.

I'm no better than anyone else. I've noticed my attention span shortening as I use more gadgets -- and why do I feel a bit of panic if I leave the house without my iPhone?

I'm hardly a Luddite, and this post isn't meant to be an antitechnology screed. Computers, cell phones, and the Internet have made huge improvements to the spread of knowledge and communications. Finding an obscure fact on Google in a few seconds is really a joy. And I don't think you should feel guilty when you buy a cell phone. But there's a cost to ourselves and to others that's all too easy to forget as we enthuse over the latest cool thing.

I welcome your comments, tips, and suggestions. Post them here so all our readers can share them, or reach me at bill.snyder@sbcglobal.net.

This article, "Suicide, stupidity, and the iPhone," was originally published by InfoWorld.com. Read more of Bill Snyder's Tech's Bottom Line blog and follow the latest technology business developments at InfoWorld.com.

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