Friday, September 14, 2012


As I write this in a hotel room in Austin the sun is coming up, and with it the room is slowly changing as it is lit by more than my laptop. I can now see my phone, tethered next to me, my old friend.

It’s a jailbroken iPhone 3GS. I’ve had this phone since its launch day in 2009, where I stood in line at the Soho Apple Store in New York. In those days I never thought about where my devices came from with any kind of rigor—if I had seen people protesting in front of the Apple Store that day, I wonder what I would have thought? Perhaps I would have shrugged. I might have said something offhand about the nature of globalization, and since no one I was with would challenge my assertions, they would have settled in my mind and cemented there. If they had a flier I would have read it…as I marched into the store to upgrade.

Today it is over three years later, and much has changed. I’ve been to China to research how our devices are made—this is the phone that went with me. I've handed it to workers who assemble iPhones who had never held a completed working one. I’ve read countless SACOM and China Labor Watch documents on this phone. I’ve responded to thousands of emails on it about Foxconn and labor conditions. I first met Steve Wozniak through it, I heard about the passing of Steve Jobs on it, and it was the lens through which I watched my work become both celebrated and despised. 

Things have changed for all of us. When I started, no one in my audiences had heard the word Foxconn, even though they make almost half of all the electronics in the world. People were routinely totally ignorant of the circumstances under which all our devices are made on the other side of the world. Now we’ve heard—and Apple heard. After years of silence, they made changes in response to fear—the fear that we would keep waking up.

In AGONY/ECSTASY, I talked about the idea that the future never arrives the way we expect it to—that we are cyborgs already—these devices are the metaphor, the frame, through which we see the world. One of the reasons I created this piece was that I identified that in the transition to the smartphone we had a device that we would have unprecedented intimacy with, there would be an opportunity to crack open the labor relationships that make that device possible.

My iPhone 3GS is in decent shape for all the wear. The battery needed replacing, but the screen is scuffed but not very scratched, the chrome is duller but still shiny, and the rounded back is marred by a few small cracks, but nothing severe. It runs everything I need it to, though I can tell it isn’t as fast as I would wish, and I feel the envy for a better camera every time I take a picture.

And it’s an AT&T iPhone, which I have said for years is almost like not having an iPhone at all. Sometimes, when I have an important text to send, I’ll type in the text and then just throw the phone at the person who needs to receive it—it’s the only way to be sure it’s delivered.

So believe me—I am very sympathetic to the desire to upgrade.

But I’m not here today to tell you not to upgrade. 

I’m here to ask you to wait.

We now know that Apple’s launches create enormous strain on their supply chain. The NYT’s fantastic reporting in January detailed multiple iPad factory explosions caused directly to the incredible rushing needed to meet launch day demand for iPads, and the recent stories of students conscripted into being forced labor at Foxconn is specifically to make iPhone 5s for their launch.

I believe that after weighing the evidence the ethical choice is to wait. After all, there’s no cost to the users—Apple stores now cover the country, and so one can simply not participate in the mania of preorder and launch day, and then in the weeks and months ahead pick up the phone you need. The only reason to get an iPhone 5 on launch day is tech mania and hunger—and in light of what we all know about the conditions and the supply chain, it can no longer be defended. 

There are other benefits, too. Waiting cools the blood—you may realize you don’t need the upgrade. It gives you the time needed to read all the stories, from the longer reviews of those using the new phone to doing more research into the labor reports on its creation. You may discover that you don’t crave upgrading as much as you thought you did. Everyone preordering clearly has a phone now—if it were truly mission-critical, you’d get a phone right this second. 

You’re waiting for the iPhone 5—it’s not lifechanging. Wait just a little bit longer. This is a real gesture that relieves pressure, does some good, and introduces a note of sanity. 

My iPhone 3GS may be on its last legs…and I’m a pragmatist in my tools. When it can no longer do the job, I will retire it. But it has worked far longer than I ever would have believed when I was deep in the Apple trance over three years ago, and I’ve grown fond of it. I have nicks and scars as well that I didn’t have when I got this phone, and we’ve gotten them together. For over a thousand days I have been utterly intimate with the small device…I think it can hold out a little longer.

They say that age and wear show our character. I would submit by showing a small degree of forbearance we can do a small, but measurable, degree of good. 

If we truly can’t wait, then we are no longer the users of these tools—they are using us instead.