The lead story in today's New York Times is the announcement that Foxconn, which manfactures voluptuous objects of techno-worship such as the iPhone, will soon be making radical changes in their employment policies.
As you've no doubt read, after a sweeping investigation by the Fair Labor Association -- which included a survey of more than 35,000 employees -- Foxconn has agreed to take steps that include a reduction in the maximum weekly work hours to 49, and a raise in the minimum wage.
What I find fascinating is that this turnabout has come through traditional pressure points- - media and NGOs. On January 6th, "This American Life" ran an hour-long feature on the horrendous working conditions at Foxconn. Although it was later retracted, their investigation helped get the media circus cued up. Later in January, the Times ran one of their in-depth, Pulitzer-eying reports that painted a grim -- if not desperate -- picture of the iPain behind the iPad. Taken together, this media focus pushed Apple to open up, finally revealing the names of its suppliers and joining the Fair Labor Association.
Where, though, was social media in all this? Largely invisible. You would think that an Apple Spring uprising would have erupted on Facebook and Twitter, encouraging boycotts and demanding change. You'd expect flash mobs in front of those crystal palaces otherwise known as Apple stores. After all, the cultural moment is right for outrage. Punishing a company for its distant but very real practices is a Hollywood protest story that taps into the latent, populist, hostility toward globalization and our natural sympathy for the underclass. And all of it is amplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has sensitized us to examples of the powerful taking advantage of the powerless.
Another trend that should have driven mass outrage about Foxconn's working conditions is our recent obsession with transparency. We want our discerning, judgmental consumerist gaze to range over the entire production and distribution cycle of the items we buy and the services we support. That's the impulse behind the increasingly vital farm-to-table movement. Chipotle Mexican Grill ran a Super Bowl commercial about the small-scale farms they support -- a slam against industrialized agriculture -- and the extended YouTube video has collected more than 6 million views.
But despite all this, social media played a minimal, 10-watt role in the run-up to the point where Apple and Foxconn had to cave. Conduct a "forensics of pressure" and you'll see that it wasn't the anger of the crowd that provoked Apple and Foxconn to change policy, but old media and NGOs working through the traditional channels.
The much celebrated tiny megaphones of millions were not a real part of the conversation. I've searched, and haven't found any meaningful "Boycott Apple" or "Boycott Foxconn" presence on Facebook or Twitter. Nothing even remotely comparable to the massive pressure put on Rush Limbaugh's advertisers after his attack on Sandra Fluke. The crowds in front of Apple stores weren't there to protest two weeks ago, but to queue up in orderly, POW fashion for the "New iPad.
There's a simple explanation: selective empathy. When it doesn't serve our self-interest (or self-love) to make a big stink about some poor, abused Chinese people half-way around the world, we just move on. Or we conveniently deploy some of the moral sleight-of-hand that Thane Rosenbaum described in the Daily Beast back in January, in a piece that posed the age-old question about Apple's responsibility to its shareholders versus its ethical obligations:
"... we negotiate these moral concessions all the time when it comes to the worlds of business and law. We never confuse morality and ethical behavior, good manners and common decency, with the bottom line, zero-sum aspirations of getting ahead and staying ahead."
What's interesting is that the trade-off that Apple shareholders are forced to make -- between their economic gain and the economic pain of others -- has a parallel in the consumer market. There, it's the psychic and emotional gains that accrue to Apple owners that need to be balanced against the sweatshop realities.
And that balance has been calibrated. Seduction wins over obligation. Based on the minimal level of visible, practical outrage -- boycotts, petitions, any social storm at all -- it's clear that the manifold pleasures we derive from Apple's products are blinding us. It's actually no different than the so-called "beauty bias"; researchers have found that good-looking people are more trusted and earn more. (Two interesting books on the subject are reviewed here in the Economist.)
You can be sure, though, if it was a less-attractive company -- say the second biggest company in the world, Exxon Mobil -- who was accused of allowing their contractors to mistreat workers and expose them to dangerous conditions on oil rigs, that there'd would have been a far more full-throated attack.
Beautiful people and people companies will always get a pass.