Is the "Perfect" Product Perfect?

iPhone

I was reading a long article in the Sunday NYTimes of January 22 about why the iPhone ended up being manufactured in China. The gist of the article is that China simply has developed a factory system we cannot match. If you are interested in this important topic, go to the article, but that is not what I want to comment on. About the middle of the article, I spotted this quote from ‘a current executive,’ “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems. Our only obligation is making the best product possible.”

It is a bit unfair to take this exactly as it stands because it was obviously taken out of a longer conversation, but it surprised me all the same. The reporter was querying Apple about the role in supporting domestic employment. I would agree with the speaker about the obligation to solve America’s [unemployment] problems, but the next sentence is a stunner. No other obligation than making “the best product possible?”

What is the best possible? For some time Apple was a laggard in its environmental design practices. It took a considerable amount of negative publicity to convince Apple to consider environmental performance as well as technical features. What about concern for the working conditions in the technically wonderful Chinese factories? I am sure there are other concerns that you would add to the singular one mentioned as additional obligations for Apple .

No single firm of Apple’s magnitude (the largest market value of all US companies) can be responsible for the economic ills or well-being of the Nation. One firm is just a node in a highly interconnected system. When the system is out of kilter, no one node can bring it back to an acceptable operational level. This feature applies also to our tendency to blame our financial woes on a single party or even a handful of causal agents.

Companies are obliged, by law, to meet all sorts of standards that pertain to product safety or the well-being of their employees. Given the anti-regulatory climate being expressed in the political talk these days, I hear business (not Apple specifically) wanting to relax the constraints on their operations. The argument is that they should be allowed to operate freely in the so-called free market. The argument might go something like this. Our sole responsibility is to our stockholders. This, in turn, means we should be the most competitive firm in our sector. And this means we have to make the best possible goods.

I don’t say the Apple spokesperson was making this case, but it is easy to move from his or her words to the implications I make above. If Adam Smith were right and the desired outcome of an economy was maximized by allowing the self-interest of all the actors to govern their action, this competitive strategy would benefit all of us. But Smith’s world is not the same as ours. The side effects of his model of the invisible hand are all too visible. The actions of one party are embedded and affect the whole system. “Too big to fail” is evidence of the systemic nature of today’s world.

I haven’t an easy answer to use to start into a conversation with Apple or any other company that makes a similar statement. One of Henry Ford’s great innovations was not the Model T; it was the realization that workers had to be paid enough so that they could afford his cars. I suspect that few if any of the Chinese workers making iPhones or anything else can afford to buy the goods they produce by their labor. The main difference today from the times of Ford is that the supply chain has become a world-wide network. If Ford’s notion still applies, can Apple or any other firm focus solely on the technical content of the product? Ford’s idea may have been motivated by the vision of more cars sold and more money in the corporate till, but, at least, it recognized the need to pay “living wages” based on the place of the goods in the society. Having the best possible product may and should be value #1, but never the only one.

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6 Comments

David M. Carter said:

Sorry to be so negative, but Apple is a real sore point for me. I am amazed by the numbers of people who believe that Apple and (the late) Steve Jobs can/could do no wrong. In my mind, Apple is representative of what is wrong in this world, and how we have gotten so far from the sustainability that you envision.

Apple is now the second most valuable company in the world, behind Exxon/Mobil. $400B is a lot of value - greater than the GDP of Greece and many other countries. An entity does not get this "rich" without tremendous cost to humanity and the environment. Here are just a few nuggets related to Apple's scullduggery:

1) Apple's Taiwanese based provider, Foxconn, is the third largest employer in the world, behind WalMart and McDonald's. Foxconn has recently had to install suicide nets around its factories in China to minimize the number of "slave" laborers calling it quits (the only way they can, apparently).

2) Related to the above, and as you point out in your blog post, Apple makes most of its money off of the backs of low pay workers. Apple does not employ many Americans. Those who are employed by Apple are considered lucky by many, yet perpetuate the outsourcing of jobs.

3) Probably most important in my mind, particularly as it relates to sustainability, is that Apple intentionally promotes the worst form of materialism and consumerism. Planned obsolescence, combined with rampant advertising designed to play on our most competitive instincts, accelerates the conversation of the natural environment into waste. Apple is genious at making perverse levels of waste trendy.

Dick Sumpter said:

It would be interesting to see if Apple could consider treating it's phones and other products like Interface Carpet tiles. We wouldn't actually buy the product - just lease it and Apple must take it back and recycle it entirely when we are finished.

Boudewijn Boon said:

The best product possible.. In case of the iPhone, the person must have meant: The best smart phone possible. And having held an iPhone a couple of times, I can say using it has convinced me in a way that it indeed is "the best smart phone possible". But this is only in terms of user experience, user comfort, this smoothness and neatness that makes the product just "right".

Take one step back and, like Ehrenfeld mentioned, we see the environmental and social impact. But if we look again at the use of the product we can see an impact on the user as well. Is this impact positive? Maybe, in the sense that the product brings joy or even the possibility, for example, to educate oneself. Or is it negative? Being drawn into the device, to be disconnected from the real world and real people, not taking time to just experience a certain moment without getting distracted by e-mails, text messages and so on.

My question would be: Could such interaction with an iPhone contribute to a mode of Being? It seems to me that for now it can take care of some concerns of the 'Care structure' (e.g. learning, self expression, family), but it can also lead us away from a mode of Being (and does so very effectively in my opinion).

David M. Carter said:

Boudewijn Boon,

In response to your question, note that at the recent Davos Economic Summit, one of the identified subjects for future investigation is cognitive dissonance associated with high tech gadgets and virtual experience.

Also, the Positive Psychology Center at Penn is investigating ways through which well-being can be enhanced through social media. Care would likely be a component of that experience if the intervention remains true to positive psychology principles.

Boudewijn Boon said:

Thank you for your comment, David M. Carter. I will look into this. It's great timing because right now I'm starting a literature study as a preparation for my master thesis.

Linda Kelley said:

When I read "the best product possible" I cannot help but think of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). In its heyday DEC challenged IBM for the top spot in the market. They prided themselves of being the best product right up to their demise. I'm not saying that will happen to Apple but it is food for thought.