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The TCO of the Best and the Brightest

As people who are part of an education community, we can educate ourselves and others to understand the true "total cost of ownership" of our computing devices: not just the cost to our pocketbooks, but the human cost to the people who make them for us.

The first time I ever saw an Apple computer was in 1982. I was temping for a Minneapolis agency that sent me to a small widget factory. The owner wanted me to input inventory numbers into a database on his brand-new personal computer, about which he was giddy with excitement. I thought it was pretty magical myself.

The next time I saw an Apple was in 1986, when I went to work as an editor for an educational software publisher. This time it was a Macintosh and I was truly blown away. I have been the proud owner of many Apple computing devices since then, and I have been a continual admirer of the company's human interface aesthetic.

So it was with great interest and a heavy heart that nine days after Steve Jobs' death I attended Mike Daisey's one-man show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," at the Public Theater in New York. Some of you may have seen the show, but if you haven't, in a nutshell: Daisey speaks to his lifelong love affair with all things Apple and how Steve Jobs was a personal hero for him.

But when Daisey visits the factory in Shenzhen, China, where Apple products are manufactured, his infatuation for pretty devices turns to disillusionment. There he encounters 12-year-old children who work 14- to 18-hour days; people in their 20s who have permanent hand deformities from executing the same repetitive motion day after day; and reports of daily suicides at the factory that are ultimately suppressed in the Chinese press (and never make it into the American press).

It was an uncomfortable experience, sitting in that audience and learning at what cost I enjoy my smartphone, my MacBook Air, and all my other electronic doodads. Indeed, Daisey makes the point that this is not an Apple problem; virtually all electronic devices are manufactured in Shenzhen, or places very much like it, under very similar working conditions. The problem lies with our voracious consumer culture that feeds the system that satiates our hunger.

I'm not suggesting we should stop buying electronics, but there are ways in which we can assert our power as consumers. We can contact Tim Cook (tcook@apple.com), Apple's new CEO, and urge him to have Apple take the lead and allow independent, outside verification of working conditions in its factories. We can put a brake on our need to have the next, newest, brightest bauble every time one comes out. If schools joined forces in either of these efforts, they may be surprised by the impact they can have.

Finally, as people who are part of an education community, we can educate ourselves and others to understand the true "total cost of ownership" of our computing devices: not just the cost to our pocketbooks, but the human cost to the people who make them for us.

Update: Since I wrote this editorial, some of Mike Daisey's personal accounts of his time investigating working conditions in China have been discredited by NPR's This American Life and other sources. When I first saw Daisey's stage performance, I was cognizant of the fact that this was theatre, not reportage, and before I wrote my editorial I did some follow-up research on his charges of child labor, long working hours, worker suicides, and other problematic working conditions he describes in his one-man show. I found news stories from credible sources and reports from human rights groups that corroborated Daisey's basic story, and felt that I had enough information to urge Apple--as well as consumers--to reconsider the pretty-devices-at-any-cost mentality that supports an inhumane manufacturing culture in China and elsewhere. Indeed, Apple itself has since acknowledged that it needs to step up its vigilance around the working conditions in its factories, a move that I have publicly supported in a subsequent editorial.

About the Author

Therese Mageau is the former editorial director of THE Journal and Campus Technology. She can be reached at therese@educationworksconsulting.com.

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