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.

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.

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