Remembering the Human Problems of a Capitalist Digitopia

The future postulated in Eric Schmidt’s and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age is on one level plausible, and on another level hard to imagine. Both authors (Schmidt being a businessman and software engineer, Cohen a member of the Council of Foreign Relations) describe the large scale economic and political effects of a seemingly inevitable fully digital age: a world that is globally interconnected, powered by mass produced technology, access to the internet, and peer to peer interaction. As the authors note, in the first decade of twenty first century, the number of people connected to the internet went from 350 million to 2 billion. If this pace continues by 2025 almost all of the anticipated 8 billion people will be online (Schmidt & Cohen, 4). The authors go on to suggest that because of this increased access to the Internet, power will “transfer” from institutions to individuals. The reason this vision is problematic (one could go so far as to say it is incomplete) is that Schmidt and Cohen don’t acknowledge the impact of all this technology on humans on a micro level. How will it change the way people are socialized? Who do they trust? Schmidt and Cohen’s future also appears to depend on the mass-production and distribution of technology, which not only gives power to multi-national corporations that manufacture them, but perpetuates their globalized methods of production, which are often exploitive to the people who work for them up to the millions.


Humans can’t be removed from the equation when talking about technology in a capitalist global economy. To illustrate the current human level manufacturing methods of even the simplest and now most ubiquitous piece of consumer technology, the iPhone, we can look at the company Foxconn. According to Wired, Foxconn is the single largest private employer in mainland China, manufactures many of the products—motherboards, camera components, MP3 players—that make up the world’s $150 billion consumer-electronics industry (Joel, np). Foxconn is responsible for 40% of consumer electronics for companies like Apple, HP, and Samsung to name just a few (Kabin, np). They employ over a million people, and nearly half of them work at their largest plant in Shenzhen. The plant is structured to be its own “city”, described as being similar to a large university campus. This “campus” however is surrounded by concrete walls and wire fences, and has facilities like meal halls and dormitories that aren’t adequate for their burgeoning population (Joel, np). Employees, most of whom are coming from poorer rural areas surrounding the factory, will often spend years, sometimes the majority of their adult lives, working here. A new feature of the factory “campus” are the nets that surround the tallest buildings on site. These nets have been installed to try and prevent suicides from occurring. From 2007 to 2011, there were a total of 17 suicides at Foxconn. One jumper left a note explaining that “he committed suicide to provide for his family”, so the program for remuneration for the families of jumpers was canceled (Joel, np). 85% of all iPhones are assembled at Foxconn (Kabin, np) so naturally both Apple and Foxconn had to defend their integrity as businesses, and has denied accusations of exploiting individuals to the brink of suicide “for the sake of low cost electronics” (Joel, np).


A report done by Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong, found in 2011 workers at the Shenzhen plant worked 13 days straight, 12 hours a day to produce the first generation of iPads (Joel, np). This is one of many stories of outsourcing labor to produce goods more “efficiently” and “faster”, but it is so removed from where those goods are consumed that they aren’t viewed as outsourcing simply as faster and more flexible means of production, which countries like the US (the country in which Apple was founded and the iPhone designed) simply can’t achieve on the same scale. What is forgotten is that it’s people who are behind that speed and that “flexibility” and make speed and efficiency possible. In 2007, the same year that the suicides began occurring, Steve Jobs decided that the newest iPhone should have a glass screen, only weeks before it was set to release. None of the American factories could meet the unrealistic deadline, but the Chinese factories quickly constructed a new dormitory so more employees could work twelve hour shifts to meet the deadline. 8,000 workers went on to produce 10,000 iPhones a day (Kabin, np). So clearly the fact that human labor is still a large factor in what makes technology more widely distributed. This kind of willingness to view and convert people as machines is part of the effect of an age fully dependent on consumer technology. Is the solution then to fully mechanize the production of electronics then, and take human workers out of the equation completely? Will companies be willing to spend that kind of money? What will happen to those people’s livelihoods?


Foxconn Factory in Shenzhen as seen from above.

Schmidt and Cohen keep their focus on the large-scale potential effects of a world where nearly everyone has access to the Internet and how that will affect various types of societies in terms of government, economics, and security. They conclude that theoretically, power should be transferred from large institutions to individuals. This includes all kind of individuals and small groups, from every day people to sophisticated hackers and terrorist organizations. The authors note that as a result of this, countries will have to make certain choices about security measures, identity tracking and surveillance according to the type of government they have: a democratic or authoritarian (Schmidt & Cohen, 34). An ongoing example to illustrate this in a democratic society is the dispute going on between Apple and the American FBI. In the San Bernardino shootings, an iPhone belonging to one of the shooters was recovered and most likely contains details that would be help in tracking down the assailants. The phone is locked, and the current software installed means that after a certain number of passcodes are guessed, the phone will automatically erase all its contents. The FBI has asked Apple to install a new kind of software to make it easier for them to unlock the phone without erasing its contents. Apple, however, views this request as outrageous, and even after a US court ordered them to comply with the FBI has continued to fight back (Smith IV, np)). Now, this is not a matter of rewriting existing encryption. The FBI was not asking for Apple to automatically unlock the phone (which is technologically impossible), but to make it easier for them to guess the passcode and unlock the phone themselves. Apple’s defense is that this is the equivalent to hacking the phone, and that if they create this software it could eventually fall into the wrong hands (malicious hackers or other terrorist groups) and be used to hack into any iPhone in the world. Many have pointed out the inaccuracy of this line of thinking, saying that Apple has the ability to keep the new software behind closed doors and unlock just the one phone (Smith IV, np). Apple has still refused to comply, firing up many pro-privacy groups who see this as a pivotal victory for private information remaining private.


The most pivotal concern however might actually be that a multi-national corporation, in fact the richest company in the world, has the influence and ability to fight and deny the government. The two are positioned as enemies of equal power, who both claim they are fighting for the same thing: the well-being of people. The FBI wants to prevent further terrorist attacks, and Apple states that it also wants to protect the privacy of its users and prevent potential cyber hacks against them. The support from many of Apple’s followers also echoes the place individuals have: they are valued consumers who feel a symbolic investment in Apple. Essentially a huge divide has been created between who has the right to decide what is private and the ethics around accessing information, and if public opinion is any indicator, a lot might say it is the decision of companies like Apple who have the right. As a result of Apple’s continued resistance, the FBI has decided to try and unlock the phone without Apple’s help (Smith, np).

As the battle between Apple and the FBI demonstrates, the issues of power, influence, and security between corporate and federal institutions that Schmidt and Cohen describe as being central to the Digital Age can be seen unfolding in our present. However, the authors still must examine the human factor in the manufacturing of all the tech they see being integrated into a variety of contexts around the world, and the way it affects the judgment and foresight of individuals. To view technology as its own entity, with its own natural evolution outside of human control is not just problematic, but incorrect. Anne-Marie Willis and David Edgerton’s analysis contrasts with Schmidt’s and Cohens because their attitude towards futurism and utopianism is more cautious and grounded in realizing the patterns and influence of the past. Edgerton, a science and technology historian, notes in his book The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 that “too often, the agenda for discussing the past, the present and the future of technology is set by the promoters of new technologies.” Technological progress is not seamless; it is also fraught with regressions, and failures and detours. At this current time, there is as much cynicism about the Internet and connectivity as there is pride and optimism. There is a disconnection between what our Internet selves, our technological identities are, and who we really are as people. As Schmidt and Cohen state, in the digital age there will be discord between our physical identities and our online identities: “We are what we tweet” (Schmidt & Cohen, 36). Will the digital reality completely subjugate the physical one? Is that why it becomes more easy and acceptable to overlook the affect consumer technology has on exploited individuals?

The current state of interconnectivity the world (or parts of the world) is quite a recent phenomenon, with the Internet being initially developed in 1965, only 51 years ago. The fully digital age that is apparently unfolding means that people are going to be socialized in a completely different way. Edgerton’s analysis of technological “evolution” and the future of our current digital age is more grounded in history. It presents a more self-aware description of the present and an emphasis on the contextual bias of “innovation centric” design and how it has been presented to the world. Anne-Marie Willis, another scholar who articulates the role designers may take on in future scenarios. Willis primarily emphasizes the fact that scenarios are not “predictions” but hypotheses. According to Willis, there are five types of future scenarios: corporate scenarios, which use market forecasts, profit forecasts, trend analysis in their predictions for companies and tech in stages of development; user scenarios that consider the user experience of certain products or systems through ethnographic observation, interviews and surveys; science fiction that is based on actual advanced research; post-nuclear war scenarios and global climate futures; reactive scenarios, which are traditional business models of what might happen (these are opportunistic for designers, but don’t push to change unsustainable habits); and finally proactive scenarios which track demographic, social, economic and climactic trends, to prompt reflection of future circumstances (these start a dialogue about sustainable futures, but sometimes develop into idealistic utopias) (Willis, 2). We could say that Schmidt and Cohen’s utopic vision of the future is both a corporate and user scenario, one that unfortunately is too oriented on the traditional notion of progress. As Willis observes: “The forces of modernization combined with the ideal of progress put a huge emphasis on the future as empty time, an open space to be filled with a vision of mass-produced utopia”(Willis, 1). This thinking can make us blind to the consequences of proposed actions and the imminence of some scenarios as opposed to others. There are many alternate versions of the past, and there are many alternate versions of the future.


Cohen, Jared & Eric Schmidt. The New Digital Age: Transforming Nations, Businesses, and Our Lives. London: John Muray, 2013. Print.

Edgerton, David. The Shock of the Old: Technology and global history since 1900. London: Profile Books, 2008. Print.

Johnson, Joel. “1 Million Workers. 90 Million iPhones. 17 Suicides. Who’s to Blame?”, Wired. N.p. 28 Feb 2011. Web. 24 March 2016.

Kabin, Benjamin. “Apple’s iPhone: Designed in California But Manufactured Fast All Around the World (Infographic)”, Entrepreneur. N.p. 11 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 March 2016.

Smith, Chris. “4 reasons why the FBI unlocking the San Bernardino iPhone without Apple is bad news” BGR. N.p. 25 March 2016. Web. 25 March 2016.

Smith IV, Jack. “Before You Crown Apple the People’s Champion Against the FBI, Read This”, Tech.Mic. N.p. 18 Feb 2016. Web. 24 March 2016.

Willis, Anne-Marie. “Designing Back from the Future: scenarios, fictions, methods.” Amman, Jordan. 29-30 April 2014. Delivered to the First Jordanian International Conference on Architecture and Design- JICAD “Reality and Future Challenges”.


One thought on “Remembering the Human Problems of a Capitalist Digitopia

  1. This post was the first time I’ve heard of Foxconn. It was hard for me to believe that a place like this existed in the world, where they have suicide nets to keep their workers from committing suicide. Workers is a loose term; they are actually indentured slaves. I googled Foxconn after reading this article (which is a bit ironic considering Foxconn probably makes many of Google’s products) and was completely shocked by what I saw. The dorms and living conditions are horrific, they look like staged sets from a dystopian movie. People look miserable, and they are all stuffed into a 10 x 10 room with 20 other people. It reminds me vaguely of the movie from last year, SnowPiercer. The movie is about a train that is the only thing left in the world after global warming’s damage, and the people in first class live lush and comfortable lives, while the people in “coach” are slaves to keeping the train going. But that’s essentially what this is, in real life. Foxconn is providing the material items that the first world needs (iPhones and other technology) that makes our lives better, but at the cost of the poor’s lives. I would have never guess that this was the cost of my iPhone. I was always aware that it was “made in a factory in China” but I never was inclined to investigate. I had assumed that working conditions would be leaps and bounds better than they are.

    In my opinion, if an American company is outsourcing labor to another country, they should be held to the same laws that the country is from. Chinese workers should be given the same rights in Foxconn that the American Apple employees in Cupertino have. There is a reason why American manufacturers told Steve Jobs that putting glass on iPhones in 3 weeks would have been impossible — they would have had to treat their employees like slaves, literally. American companies should not be allowed to import in products that are made in poor working conditions, period.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s