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This article is from Issue 59: Sep/Oct 2012

The Story of Our Stuff

Do you know where your gadgets come from?

I don’t know my wife’s phone number; my iPhone does. I don’t need directions. I have Google Maps in my pocket—just give me your address.

I can’t remember the source of Optimus Prime’s power, but since I have to know right this minute, I can slide my thumb across the screen like a magician and unlock the vast knowledge—useless and otherwise—of humanity. (To save you the trouble, it’s called the Creation Matrix.) I don’t need to know anything anymore. I have an iPhone.

And then there’s Siri, the iPhone 4S personal assistant. She can make no-nonsense recommendations on where to eat and how to get there, but if you ask her where she’s from, she plays coy.

“Like it says on the box,” she tells me, “I was designed by Apple in California.”

“Siri, be honest. Are you from China?” I ask.

“No comment, Kelsey.”

The Story That Opened Our Eyes

Let me tell you about a British man who was eagerly waiting for his new iPhone to arrive in August 2008. I’m sure he was doing that thing where you track it every 30 minutes online to see if it has left the warehouse yet.

Finally, the day came. He opened the box, and it still had that new iPhone smell. Then he fired it up, only to discover photos already loaded into the phone’s memory—photos of a worker at the Chinese factory where the phone was made. She was giving a peace sign and smiling for the camera.

He posted the photos on MacRumors.com, and in a matter of weeks, the ensuing thread exploded with nearly 700 comments.

The “iPhone girl” became a sensation. Her smiling face was on cNET, on MSNBC, and in the Washington Post. Everyone wanted to know, “Who is iPhone girl?”

Reporters tracked her to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen. Foxconn, the largest private employer in all of China, employs more than 1 million people, and half of them work at the
Shenzhen factory.

Then there’s the negative press Foxconn and Apple received after a 2010 rash of worker suicides—17 total—at the Shenzhen plant. Suicides became such a problem that the company had to install nets to catch workers so depressed they opted to jump to their death rather than go back to work.