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Was Your iPhone Produced by Slaves? Has It Made You One, As Well?

Media scholar Jack Linchuan Qiu argues that slavery-like conditions, which define digital media workers, mirror the slavery-like obsessions of consumers.

Are we slaves to our iPhones?

More importantly, are the iPhones to which we are enslaved produced by slaves?

There’s been a lot of talk, popular and scholarly alike, about the problematic conditions under which modern technology is produced. Apple in particular, and the firms on which it relies — Foxconn, for instance — have come under especial scrutiny. There’s little doubt that the conditions under which digital media technology such as iPhones are produced constitute some of the harsher labour conditions experienced by the world’s workers, but is it fair to call this slavery? Media scholar Jack Linchuan Qiu — and the consortium of universities and researchers he works with — believes that it is.

Modern slavery, from the 17th century to the present day, has been characterized by a need to shape and reshape people’s desires, particularly around consumption.

In some ways, the slavery-like conditions that he argues define digital media workers mirror the slavery-like obsessions of their consumers. Nor is this a new phenomenon; it’s one reflected in slave labour throughout history.

Both slaves and those who consume slave-produced goods are characterized by a shared quality, notes Qiu: desocialization. Those who are profiting off slaves rely on desocialization to prevent uprisings and rebellions: the more atomized and fragmented the slaves, the less likely they will join together to resist or overthrow the system. Thus, slave profiteers over the centuries have developed complex approaches to managing slave labour designed to prevent social unity: drawing from disparate geographic and linguistic regions and keeping slaves divided; using fear and rewards to pit slaves against each other; etc.

At the other end of the relationship, though, lies another version of desocialization. It’s not enough to use slavery to produce massive quantities of cheap goods: if no one wants the cheap goods, the whole endeavor is pointless and (from the perspective of the slave profiteer) unprofitable. The key to profiting off slaves lies in offering a previously unobtainable good to a mass public for cheap; but why would the mass public want something it was getting along without? Thus, modern slavery, from the 17th century to the present day, has been characterized by a need to shape and reshape people’s desires, particularly around consumption, and this has been largely accomplished through desocialization; disrupting existing social and collective relationships between people in order to refashion them as individualist consumers with individual, personalized wants.

In early modern Europe, the success of slave-produced sugar plantations relied on reshaping consumption patterns. People had to be induced to adopt new wants: putting sugar in their tea; eating sweet desserts after a meal; desiring a particular food item and then purchasing and consuming it individually instead of working with others to coordinate a group meal, as had hitherto been common practice.

In a similar fashion, the desirability of modern cell phones and portable devices had to be generated; the need for the latest up-to-date model in order to access the newest, most trending apps is a modern analogue to the historical process of shaping consumer desires to rely on slave-produced goods. The iPhone is the new sugar.

What unites both slave and consumer of slave-produced goods is the social atomization — the desocialization — that is used to prevent slaves from organizing resistance to the system and is used to keep consumers glued into the system to make it profitable for the slave profiteers.

This is why, notes Qiu, one of the most effective tools in organizing abolition movements against slavery in modern history has been consumer-oriented campaigns. If the profitability of slavery relies on shaping particular desires for consumption, abolitionists can also work to disrupt those desires and consumption patterns in order to make slavery unprofitable and unviable. By appealing to consumers’ values and morals — exposing the brutal conditions under which goods were produced and urging consumers not to purchase those goods — abolitionists have sought to undermine the profitability of slave-produced goods.

Slavery and its Deep-Rooted Historical Legacy

Qiu, in his most recent study Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition, draws several other observations from the historical analysis of slavery. First, he says, “definitions of slavery are often fluid, contingent upon contexts and norms that are subject to change.” When we think of slavery, most of us think of the model whereby Africans were forcibly transported to America and forced to work on sugar plantations and other types of forced labour, or perhaps of the more distant model of slaves in Imperial Rome. But these are only a few examples of a very adaptable practice, notes Qiu, and it’s important to recognize that slavery has existed in many other forms, times and places, as well.

Second, slavery “imposes a system of inequality upon those who were either born or made to be on the margins of society.” This has manifested in slavery predominantly targeting women, and those with darker skin. Other vulnerable groups in specific times and places have also been targeted, the key being that the most marginalized in society are often the most vulnerable to, and exploited by, slavery.

Thirdly, resistance against slavery “is often understated, sometimes deliberately forgotten, or carelessly buried in oblivion.” History is full of examples of the struggle against slavery, from cultural practices (song, dance) to armed rebellion. One scholar estimates that up to one million Africans either escaped or died through acts of rebellion while being transported from Africa to the Americas.

Fourthly is a historical pattern: slavery tends to expand with the rise of empires or new geopolitical powers, and then as the expansion of those powers slows down, they’re forced to reduce or outright abolish the practice of slavery in order to avoid social disintegration, armed uprisings or civil wars. While this model reflects historical cases — the rise of Rome, Islamic empires, colonial European empires, the United States — it also applies aptly to the rise of new powers such as China, which relies on the labour of what Qiu describes as iSlaves.

As earlier noted, Qiu argues that while slavery exists for other purposes, predominantly its use has been “so that the labor of the enslaved can be extracted at minimum cost.” It’s practiced for profit, and its role in modern capitalism therefore exists in an intimate relationship to consumer demand — from sugar to iPhones.

Qiu makes three final observations about historical patterns in slavery. First, there are some slaves who have exercised immense power — eunuchs in imperial Rome and China are examples — yet who remain slaves because their power is extremely precarious and exists solely at someone else’s whim. Second, slavery has played an essential role in the creation of modernity. Here Qiu takes issue with Marx’s analysis of modern capitalism as comprising a relationship between bourgeoisie and proletariat. Marx assumed slavery was historical or on the way out, says Qiu, and this reflects Marx’s Eurocentric analysis. In actual fact, “Marx underestimated the power and persistence of slavery”, as did other key thinkers from Adam Smith to Max Weber. They considered slavery something primitive and inconsequential to modern capitalism, yet Qiu argues it remains a key component of modernity.

Finally, Qiu draws on the work of other scholars to argue that slaves were among “the world’s first ‘modern’ people’”, in the sense that they were removed from their culture and family, and instead existed in an identity defined by industrialisation and consumerist modernity. What’s more, modern societies — again the post-revolutionary United States offers a clear example — in many ways relied on slavery and slave labour in order to make possible the modern freedoms and liberties they have praised themselves over (yet which have historically only been enjoyed by a privileged portion of the population). Similarly, when we think of contemporary freedoms afforded by mobile digital technology, we often fail to consider that these items we enjoy, and which we consider to endow us with greater freedom, are produced by slave labour.

Defining Slavery

Defining slavery under modern law traces its roots to the 1926 ‘Convention to Suppress the Slave Trade and Slavery’, produced by the League of Nations. This was reaffirmed and updated by the United Nations in 1956, particularly with a view toward addressing forms of slavery experienced during the Second World War — concentration camps, forced labour — and amid arguments that Soviet gulags, South African apartheid practices, and colonization also comprised forms of modern slavery.

The Cold War led to a hiatus in international efforts to define and combat slavery, but conditions at the end of the 20th century brought the issue back to the fore. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a surge in human trafficking from former Soviet republics to Europe; at the same time, a growth in sex worker trafficking and forced labour by warlords and militias in Eastern Europe and Africa (from rape camps to child soldiers) drew the attention and alarm of international jurists and scholars. For the first time in 1998, a former Bosnian Serb militia commander was sentenced to prison by an international tribunal for the crime of sexual slavery.

This confluence of conditions led to a recognition that slavery conventions needed to be updated for the 21st century. One product of this has been the 2012 Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery, which is generally considered to reflect the legal and scholarly consensus on what constitutes slavery. It makes several important points, four of which Qiu draws on in his argument that workers in digital media industry such as FoxConn employees producing Apple products, and others, are experiencing modern forms of slavery.

First, under the Bellagio-Harvard Guidelines slavery is no longer merely considered a legal category, but a reflection of a person’s “status or condition”. You do not need to be legally considered a slave in order to be considered a slave under international law. If the status or conditions under which you exist constitute “practices similar to slavery”, the offense of slavery is considered to be present. What this means is that slavery can exist anywhere: “the substance and not simply [the] form of the relationship” is what matters.

Second, slavery happens when people exercise “powers attaching to ownership”, not actual or legal ownership. Nor does it require a strict definition of ownership, which has proven difficult to agree upon. Instead, slavery is considered to exist when one enacts any of a variety of powers of ownership over another person, for example: “significantly deprive that person of his or her individual liberty”; “intent of exploitation through the use, management, profit, transfer or disposal of that person”; and the exercise of such powers through varied means including “violent force, deception and/or coercion.” The definition is deliberately broad, and does not even require that the person committing the offense of slavery be doing so intentionally. By making it difficult for people — including student interns at Foxconn — to quit their “employment”, companies are engaging in slavery-like practices, argues Qiu.

Thirdly, in order for slavery to be present, it only requires one of the “powers of ownership” listed in the Guidelines to be present, not all of them. Any single one is sufficient to qualify a condition as slavery.

The fourth point Qiu draws upon, which is referenced in the Guidelines as an issue but which the Guidelines do not specifically adopt a position on — is the issue of whether the ‘slave trade’ includes the trade in slave-produced goods. Historically, the ‘slave trade’ referred exclusively to the trade in human slaves. Some jurists and scholars, including Qiu, argue for the definition to be broadened to include as an offense the trade in slave-produced goods. This includes, says Qiu, both human organ trafficking as well as products such as tomatoes, minerals, or iPhones.

Most broadly, the Guidelines reflect a shifting emphasis from strictly defined legal conditions to more flexible, broadly defined practices. This reflects an understanding that new forms of slavery continue to evolve, and that definitions ought to be broad and flexible to encompass those forms that either do not yet exist or are not yet widely understood to constitute slavery. It also reflects a shift from recognizing “de jure slavery [legally defined slavery] towards recognitions of de facto slavery [slavery in reality].”

Slavery in Practice

Numerous tragic examples exist to bolster Qiu’s argument, and he explores them at length in his book. Qiu humself, while leading research teams investigating Foxconn factories, was approached by Foxconn guards offering to violently “discipline” his students, for a price.

Fanciful and often intellectual depictions of the internet as an immaterial new frontier of conceptual and social possibilities are overplayed and bogus.

While Chinese labour law theoretically allows workers to quit jobs at will, employers routinely take advantage of uninformed workers’ ignorance and lead them to believe they are not permitted to quit. One worker was told she had to obtain 38 different signatures — a task that took her over two months — in order to be allowed to quit. Many employees, she later noted, would not be nearly as persistent as she was, and would simply give up — or opt for suicide as an easier option.

The infamous ‘Foxconn Suicide Express’ — a spate of high-profile worker suicides at Foxconn factories in 2010 — drew international outcry. Yet it only represented the tip of the iceberg. Only undeniable suicide deaths — those who jump from tall buildings, for instance — count in some statistics; many workers die by suicide in their own personal quarters, and their deaths can easily be covered up.

Qiu notes an eerie parallel between ‘iSlavery’ and the Atlantic slave trade in African slaves of previous centuries. When slaves were brought on deck for exercise and fresh air during their transport, a not insignificant number would try to throw themselves into the sea in order to escape their suffering. This reduced slavers’ profits, so slaving boats transporting slaves to the Americas had to rig fields of netting around their decks in order to prevent suicides. In a similar fashion, as worker suicides increased several Foxconn factories also erected netting around the upper levels of worker dormitories and sealed off stairwells, in order to reduce deaths by suicide. ‘Suicide nets’ — a little-known characteristic of the Atlantic slave trade — were resurrected by Foxconn factories toward the same end: reducing the deaths of worker-slaves whose “existential despair” led them to this extreme end.

Addiction as Slavery

Qiu takes the argument a step further, to distinguish between manufacturing iSlaves (the workers who toil in the factories and the mines to produce the actual devices) and manufactured iSlaves (the people locked into consumption patterns around these goods). While his argument that ‘manufacturing iSlaves’ experience in what could legally be considered slavery relies on more widely accepted understandings of slavery (although clearly still controversial and contested in their application to modern digital industries), his argument around ‘manufactured iSlaves’ seeks to push our understanding of slavery a step further. His argument urges us to acknowledge the lack of control experienced by users and consumers, as well.

On the one hand, he notes, fanciful and often intellectual depictions of the internet as an immaterial new frontier of conceptual and social possibilities are overplayed and bogus: the internet cannot exist without physical machines produced through hard physical labour and what a growing number of people call slavery-like conditions. The internet is inseparable from the vast array of physical machines that make it possible. There is no magic, immaterial ‘cloud’: all data is produced through and stored in physical machines.

On the other hand, there is an important point raised by the immateriality of the Web, notes Qiu, and that is the way it forces us all to produce endlessly through a form of immaterial labour. In China, cell phones are often referred to as the ‘fifth limb’ (diwuzhi); in the West, theorists have started talking about the ‘third skin’: “besides our biological skin and the layer(s) of clothing we wear, we are now surrounded by the data we generate through our social media updates, locational data, searches, purchases, and likes. It’s part of us, or more precisely, it’s part of the informational me, in that you and I produce these data interactively through our routine behavior, sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly; it’s intensely personal — arguably much more so than clothing, the “second skin” — in revealing our tastes and curiosities, our biometrics and social networks, the way we act and think, consciously and subliminally.”

The point here is that all of us constantly exist within our informational bodies, yet we have no control over those bodies. The data we produce is stored and analysed, even manipulated, by the companies that control the digital social media systems we operate within. Theoretically we grant them consent by clicking ‘I agree’ on those incomprehensible contracts whenever we use a new system or piece of software, but we don’t really have any choice, especially if we want to continue doing the things we need to do in order to operate in today’s world.

Herein lies the crux, suggests Qiu. It’s not sufficient to simply tell people to ‘unplug’ if they don’t agree with performing endless immaterial labour over which we have no control at the behest of social media companies; we are enslaved by “our needs to make sense of the world given the overwhelming profusion of information overload and the tyrannical tempo of digital capitalism”. Telling someone they are free to ‘unplug’ is like telling someone they can choose not to learn to speak, or to read. Existing and acting with our ‘digital skin’ is essential, today, to being able to comprehend and act within the modern world. Yet while we might have habeus corpus — the legally recognized right to control our physical bodies — we have no similar right over our immaterial bodies in the cloud. There we might think we are free to act, but from a productive, labour perspective we are all slaves.

Digital Colonialism

This modern innovation on slavery exists in tandem with historical processes. As the importance and profitability of immaterial labour has grown, there’s been a shift in the global division of labour, and not in the direction of emancipation. Physical labour — industrial production, factories, mining — has shifted to the global south, while immaterial labour has become the preserve of the global north. Unfree it might be, but it’s still a more privileged form of slavery than the physically destructive conditions under which workers toil in the global south.

Resistance against exploitation and slavery is inevitable because the enslaved will never suffer their enslavement indefinitely.

Moreover, despite the profusion of digital media technology throughout the world — cell phones are as ubiquitous today in the poorest corners of the global south as they are in the streets of Manhattan. The price paid for this technology, however, is not the same. It is precisely because of the consumer desire and demand for these products generated by their trendiness in the global north that workers in the global south take the physically and psychologically destructive jobs which provide the workforce that produces these items. The global south is rife with stories of teenagers selling kidneys, or families selling babies, in order to obtain digital media devices. Such stories are less likely to be heard in the global north, where easy credit and higher salaries make digital consumption possible. From personal physical deterioration to the social fragmentation of villages and whole regions, the price exacted from the global south for access to digital media is far greater than that exacted from its consumers in the global north. And again, the parallels with historical patterns of the slave trade are compelling.

Appconn, iSlavery, and Labour

While scholars researching Chinese digital media labour typically focus on Foxconn, Qiu focuses on a much broader target, which he refers to as ‘Appconn’, “the global digital empire of hardware and software, of content, services, data, and culture”. One thing that Appconn excels at exploiting is unpaid labour, from producers to consumers.

Scarcity has always been, and remains, an important element in both controlling slaves and generating profit. Hunger and material deprivation have been used to control slaves historically, and these both remain a potent fear driving many young Chinese workers into Foxconn factories. But scarcity works on the consumption side as well. Cognizant of Chinese media’s tendency to target foreign products and companies in a blend of patriotic consumerism, Apple Inc adopted a deliberate strategy of minimalist advertising. Relying on word of mouth rather than large billboard or magazine ads, Apple also deliberately restricted sales of iPads and iPhones in the country. The move was a clever one, generating intense consumer demand for the products precisely because they were so scarce. That deliberate scarcity, suggests Qiu, is also part of what has led to extreme examples of desperation to obtain the goods: selling kidneys, babies, or one’s own self into the tyranny and brutality of Foxconn factories, all in order to obtain the latest digital products.

The amount of unpaid labour we perform — by using the Web under conditions of corporate and state monitoring and surveillance, from making purchases to browsing websites to playing games, or what Julian Kucklich has aptly referred to as ‘playbour’ — is astonishing. Qiu performed some calculations to put labour in digital media industries into proper context.

Scholars have made efforts to quantify the unpaid labour performed by slaves during the era of the Atlantic Slave Trade. In 1800, for instance, a few years before Britain began passing laws to render slavery illegal, it’s been calculated that country availed of the productive work of 2.5 billion hours of slave labour in sugar, tobacco and cotton industries. Qiu estimates that Foxconn workers today generate 4.76 billion hours of productive labour annually — twice as much as that produced by British slaves two centuries ago. But what is even more astonishing is Qiu’s calculation that unpaid labour expended by Facebook users annually, which generates profits for advertisers and other capitalist endeavors reliant on user-generated data and algorithms, amounts to 652 billion hours of unpaid labour annually: 137 times more than what is produced on Foxconn assembly lines.

As Qiu notes, the point of critiquing the system should not be to simply critique China. China, he notes, is not exclusively to blame for what is going on. “The real power lies in the world system,” he writes. China is simply the latest country to provide the greatest state support to digital media industries seeking to reduce costs by exploiting labour. But what is at fault is a global system that rewards these practices, and that allows companies like Apple and other digital medias to shift their operations from country to country in pursuit of profit maximization, even at the expense of human lives. If we are going to bring about fundamental change, it will require more than simply changing China: it is the world system that facilitates and encourages such practices that needs to be changed.

Social Media and Worker Resistance

iSlaves are striking back, using the master’s tools in an effort to take over the master’s house. Or perhaps it’s more appropriate to say they are reclaiming the tools of their own labour, and using them in their struggles against Appconn and iSlavery. Social media platforms have become a key space in which workers not only publicize their struggles, but share struggles with each other, exchanging ideas and stories of strikes and victories. Workers post videos of confrontations with supervisors, demonstrating the weakness of management and showing that they can be confronted (and how to do it effectively). When workers at a northern Chinese factory killed their factory owner in 2009 in a struggle over privatization, workers at a southern Chinese factory learned of it through social media and used the potent threat to successfully deter local authorities from pursuing similar initiatives in their region, Qiu notes. This is but one of several examples of the importance of information exchange among workers.

Drawing on the skills of hackers to strike against their employers’ online presence is a tool that’s been used occasionally, but the primary use of social media has been in sharing information and ideas, notes Qiu, in workers talking about their lives and struggles, rather than developing innovative uses for technology. Communicating and trading stories is the oldest form of solidarity-building in the world, and the internet merely facilitates a broader scale for the age-old practice. In China, state censorship — usually at the behest of employers and companies — is always a real threat, but the profusion of different social media platforms has allowed workers to move their struggles from platform to platform in response to crackdowns by authorities. Sometimes this involves reinvigorating older social media platforms; other times it means accessing platforms controlled by owners in other states than those in which the struggle is taking place.

Qiu notes that a proletarianization of cyberspace has been taking place in China, an interesting development occurring on multiple scales. Some social media platforms offer preferred status to ‘elite’ users, creating digital class divides. Yet there’s a broader transition in mass social media usage: while some of China’s largest social media platforms have started declining in usage (e.g., Weibo, China’s largest version of Twitter), platforms that have a predominantly working-class user base have been growing (e.g., the Qzone blog service). Class analyses of social media usage is important in understanding its deployment in class struggle and resistance, notes Qiu. Demographic data is revealing as well: although only about half of China’s population regularly uses the Internet (50.3 percent), 80.4 percent of those users do not have a college education, and 60.1 percent of them earn less than the country’s average income.

The result is a profusion of new concepts and terms which Qiu and other scholars use to understand the implications of these facts for class struggle: UGC (user-generated content, aligned or contributing toward corporate goals) versus WGC (worker-generated content, grounded in class analysis or class struggle / resistance of some kind); DNA (digitally networked activism) versus isolated strikes. Indeed, notes Qiu, when it comes to social media censorship, authorities have become more tolerant of anti-government criticism. What concerns them, and sparks quick retaliation, is online activity that has “collective action potential”. An angry critique is one thing: if it seems poised to generate physical mobilization, however, it becomes something very different.

Qiu is also sensitive to the importance of less overtly confrontational tactics. Again drawing parallels to the Atlantic slave trade, he notes that singing, dancing, religious rituals, using one’s own languages, all comprised important forms of solidarity building and resistance among African slaves transported to the Americas. Parallels exist today, with workers sharing poetry and other literary or cultural interventions via social media, and these are important aspects of struggle to follow, he notes.

“Among workers and activists there is sometimes a tendency to despise those who choose to resist domination through their poetry, folk songs, music, theatrical performance, and online videos — because they are not confrontational enough, because talking is, allegedly, easy,” Qiu writes. Point well taken, yet I disagree. If one defined slavery not simply as regimes of violence and suppression but more fundamentally in Patterson’s terms as ‘natal alienation’ and ‘social death,’ it follows that the first act of resistance is precisely about preserving and/or reconstructing the social ties through the most appropriate means of content creation and sharing. “Isolation is vulnerability; the control of communication is power.”

Options for Abolition

Is there a way to exist outside of AppConn, short of totally rejecting the modern (and arguably necessary) digital world? Qiu suggests yes. In response to those who cynically state that operating in the modern world without relying on blood minerals and iSlave-produced digital gadgetry is impossible, he points to the ‘free produce’ shops that began operating in the US in 1826. Just like modern ethical purchasing initiatives, ‘free produce’ shops sought to sell goods that were not produced through slave labour, in opposition to a hegemonic society that argued it was impossible to get along without slave-produced goods. Launched by Quakers and free black abolitionists, they were among the first examples of ethical purchasing in a world that continues to struggle with the concept.

Modern-day analogies exist. There’s the example of ‘Fairphone’, an ethically sourced counterpoint to Apple, which was designated “Europe’s fastest growing start-up” in 2015. It may or may not continue to grow; the point, argues Qiu, is that we continue the cycle of striving toward living in a society grounded in anti-exploitative activity. Will we finally, one day, achieve this goal?

Qiu, and others hope that we will. He quotes from anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who studied the ways in which consumer tastes were molded to promote consumption of slave-produced sugar in the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Mintz argues there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about consumer taste: “It is not our human nature that is universal, but our capacity to create cultural realities, and then to act in terms of them.”

The point is an important one for Qiu and those who struggle against iSlavery. The desperate quest for the latest iGadget — part of what they refer to as the consumer model of manufactured iSlavery — is not inevitable. It is manufactured, like the goods we are led to desire. Further, they believe, with all the idealistic hope of those who two centuries ago defeated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it can be overcome. But if we are to do so, we all need to start thinking in bigger terms.

Much of the cost invested in this planetary communication infrastructure cannot be measured in monetary terms alone: there is liberty and dignity, justice and social ties. Without a full consideration of the cost at large, the crude logic of profit maximization, of putting a price tag on everything, is leading to slavery-like institutions and practices, which are not only ongoing but deteriorating.

Qiu, and his colleagues believe this is possible. Their idealism echoes through their scholarship, and it offers an impassioned, compelling case against the inevitability of a world grounded in corporate oppression and modern-day slavery. In the end, they argue, resistance against exploitation and slavery is inevitable because the enslaved will never suffer their enslavement indefinitely; because where there is slavery, there is resistance; and where there is resistance, there is hope. History offers compelling parallels; but more importantly, it offers compelling inspiration.

“So long as there is slavery, there is resistance — not only from civil-society organizations, well-off consumers, and elite abolitionists, but more crucially from the slaves themselves, who have, once mobilized, the greatest political will to break from bondage, as history has repeatedly shown.”

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