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pirate wires #41 // israel vs. palestine vs. apple, the media's amplification of crazy activists, and maybe we should talk about the chinese slave labor
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Tech’s crazy people problem still a problem, fyi. Another week, another culture war attention heist at Apple. Employees demanded Tim Cook speak up about Palestine, The Verge’s Zoë Schiffer reports. But let’s be a little more precise: 1000 employees signed a letter asking Tim Cook to speak up about Palestine, and Zoë once again — three stories in a row now — omitted the essential piece of context that Apple employs close to 150,000 people. That’s a “demand” from less than one percent of the company.
I’ve written at length about the expectation technology companies publicly support the cultural and political positions of their in-house activists, something I think both inappropriate and more clearly by the day contributing to a culture of workplace harassment. But the expectation Tim Cook personally take a stance on so complex and highly-polarizing an issue as war in the Middle East is truly a bold new ask from the industry’s craziest people. Not only does this have nothing to do with Apple, it’s easily one of the most complicated geopolitical questions in modern history. For example, while activists at Apple want Cook to speak specifically about Israel’s “illegal occupation” of Palestine, the Gaza Strip, aka a massive chunk of Palestine, is controlled by Hamas, the fascistic, theocratic terrorist organization not only responsible for launching 4,000 rockets at Israel, beginning with the barrage that began this most recent conflict, but for the brutal oppression of men and women throughout… Palestine. Among the group’s many horrific human rights positions, a few notable highlights: Hamas is in favor of the total subjugation of women, Hamas is in favor of hunting down and executing gay men, Hamas is in favor of a Jewish genocide. To be clear, I don’t expect Cook to speak out against a group of mass-murdering fascists half-a-world away, I’m just wondering what the rest of his employees would think if he took an activist stance in their favor, and why isn’t this part of the story? Has anyone asked the ninety-nine percent what they think?
I eagerly await the Verge’s investigation.
In last week’s absurdist foray into the priorities of Apple’s activists in residence, a petition demanded ‘accountability’ for the hiring of the critically-acclaimed, bestselling author of Chaos Monkeys. Unlike the demands for a workplace discourse on Palestine, this drama could at least be forced (if dishonestly) into a broader conversation about respect in the workplace, which many people other than committed activists might justifiably care about. Even still, the petition was only signed (allegedly) by 2,000 employees. This seems to indicate Apple’s perennially furious activist class maxes out somewhere in the 1,000 to 2,000 range, and likely closer to the bottom end of the spectrum. Behold: the technology industry’s One Percent.
The vast majority of Apple employees, much like the vast majority of tech workers, are not especially interested in culture war witch burnings, or fraught workplace political conversations, and they certainly don’t expect Tim Cook to take public positions on geopolitics anathema, even, to most of our elected representatives in Washington — the people who should actually be engaging on this topic. This is probably why we haven’t seen any movement on the Palestine discourse from Cook, and I doubt we ever will. So what to do for the angry few? I want to help these people.
How can we help these people???
Everyone in the industry deserves to be happy with their work, including Apple’s One Percent. The problem is, I just don’t think that One Percent will ever find happiness at a large technology company focused, as they unfortunately tend to be, on technology. I’ve been thinking, for the small fraction of employees who need their colleagues to share their niche political views on class and race and highly-complex internecine religious conflict spanning several thousand years and presently taking place 7,500 miles away, it might be worth exploring a new kind of work. Full-time activism at a fake non-profit, perhaps? A YouTube channel? Apple should absolutely help anyone interested in pursuing a passion more suited to their disposition with a generous severance, and send them on their way. Then it’s back to work. Problem solved, right? Well, maybe in a world without a strife-thirsty tech press.
The question of why a journalist would amplify a company’s activist one percent in so steady and disproportionate a manner is often raised, and among the minority of journalists engaged in the practice I think there are two big reasons. First, a small handful of reporters are themselves just activists. They’re not interested in reporting at all. Culture war tech dramas are, for them, not even about tech, they’re about culture. Tech is just a vessel for a broader, distorted, activist story. But for most journalists amplifying tech industry strife, I think the motive is a little simpler. Successful writers tend to be biased in favor of conflict because they tend to understand, even if only intuitively, that conflict drives narrative, and narrative is what they do. The culture war? A tremendous fount of conflict, and when the fount runs dry it can always be primed.
Ostensibly, the purpose of Kara Swisher’s recent interview with freshly-canceled Chaos Monkeys author Antonio García Martinez was to hold Antonio “accountable” for writing a novelized autobiography in an asshole Gonzo voice that Kara herself characterized as “very funny” five years ago. Things have, of course, changed, and this — the accountability frame — was evidenced throughout the interview, as well as on Kara’s timeline:
The phrasing “hold to account” appeared multiple times in questions from the audience, which were obviously curated in advance of the interview, and endorsed wholeheartedly by Kara throughout the course of the chat. But why did we need to hold Antonio to account at all? Even if you actually believe Antonio’s firing was valid, by the time of the interview hadn’t there been an accounting? The man lost his job. Even for the cultural authoritarians among us, what’s left to talk about? Unless we’re to believe the tech press really just has a kind of weird boner for punishing people — which I myself do not believe, refuse to believe, okay honestly just don’t want to think about before dinner — there has to be more.
Sure, Kara probably at least in part intended to absolve herself of the newly-notable and actually fair interview she conducted with Antonio about his book in 2016. The amicable nature of the thing could not have been popular among activist crazy people, and while Kara doesn’t strike me as a full-fledged activist crazy person herself, she does work with many of them at the Times. It’s slightly a hostage situation over there, I think. But mainly what Kara appears to be concerned with is her audience, and with keeping their attention. For this? We need dramatic tension. I don’t think the questions from the audience were about accountability at all. I think they were a reminder to everyone listening. Keep writing those petitions, and we’ll put you on stage. Gin up that mob, and we’ll hand you a mic. Provided your opinions are roughly media in-group, you’ll have the greatest gift a young person in today’s warped social media environment can have: followers. And this is how the Kara’s of the world will have their conflict.
So on and on the industry goes, following the One Percent into obsession over things we have no real control over, like peace on earth and asshole writers, while we ignore the things for which we’re actually responsible.
Yes, I’m talking about China.
Our unfortunate fling with Xi Jinping. After last week’s Antonio story, I received a flood of emails from folks in tech who have either experienced ideologically-motivated workplace harassment themselves, or have at least born witness to chronically crazy behavior. Apple is now a “bureaucratic social police state,” wrote one engineer at the company afraid to speak out for fear of professional repercussions. It was his opinion that Apple engaged with its local activists because it kept them from asking the actually important questions, like for example "how do you in good conscience continue to incentivize Chinese slave labor?"
Last week, The New York Times broke a damning story on Apple’s relationship with China, reporting a wide litany of CCP privacy and censorship demands to which Apple has acquiesced. Among many disturbing claims, the Times alleged Apple stores Chinese customer data on servers run by a state-owned firm. In other words, despite Tim Cook’s assurances to the contrary, his company is almost certainly assisting — if even inadvertently — the CCP surveillance of Chinese citizens. In a totalitarian country that executes political dissidents, this is a matter of life and death. The Times piece broke on the heels of an even more disturbing story, which has been evolving since last December’s Washington Post report that partial construction of the iPhone seems to have inadvertently employed the use of slave labor. At the time of the report, Apple denied most of the allegations, but earlier this month The Information claimed at least seven Chinese companies that have worked for Apple have done so with the help of slave labor from Xinjiang, where perhaps as many as a million people have been forced into compulsory labor and reeducation programs. Elsewhere, in collaboration with Nike and Coca-Cola, Apple is lobbying members of Congress to weaken the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which would make it more difficult to import goods from China built with the sort of slave labor now typical (has it always been?) of that country.
So far, no petitions on any of this from Apple employees.
To be clear, no one from the technology industry is lobbying Congress on behalf of slave labor. In fact, Apple has a policy of policing its factories to prevent the practice. But what the lobbying indicates is Apple leadership correctly believes they’re almost certainly failing. They simply aren’t capable of effectively policing supply chains controlled by the CCP, and Apple builds almost every one of its products in China. Leadership doesn’t want to be held liable for something it can’t control, and the situation in China is all the way out of control. I’m thinking back, now, to the Congressional hearing on tech when Cook hilariously asserted no knowledge of China ever having stolen technology, which every CEO working on new technology knows is a lie. He lies. He’s lying. Then, I’m typing on a Mac right now.
Aren’t we all sort of lying?
Cook doesn’t touch the China stuff because he can’t touch the China stuff without savaging his company. This is obvious. Employees at Apple don’t touch the China stuff because they know they’re directly benefiting from the relationship, and if the human rights violations are really that terrible… why not quit? But are the moral questions here really that different for the rest of us? Even if you don’t own an Apple product, we live in a hyper-connected society in which most people we work with, and rely on, do own an Apple product, and anyway is any hardware company reliant on rare metals sourced from Africa or China (pretty much all of them) free of this specific sin? I think not. We are hopelessly entangled in an obvious moral horror, and parsing a topic like this just doesn’t feel as good as a performative witch burning every now and then, or a beating of our chests over the immortal wars of the Middle East in which the technology industry, at least, is not directly involved.
For years now I’ve wondered how something so self-evidently insane as the culture war grift could manage such a powerful hold on so many genuinely very bright people. But maybe we just love the distraction. A grown-up conversation about the actual moral conundrums facing our industry, and our nation, would be difficult. The world is increasingly complex. There are no easy answers. Fixing the broken stuff of civilization? No thank you. Bring in the clowns.
Apple needs to reconsider its relationship with China, but so does the rest of the country. Maybe there’s a role for government here, and the good news is “a role for government,” in this context, probably does just mean banning stuff, which god knows the government can manage. For that, we need public buy-in. There’s been a lot of great reporting on China, but it’s not enough to get the cultural flywheel spinning. Maybe there’s room for all of us after all, working together with all of our special skills. Imagine the rage of the One Percent dedicated to a worthy cause, amplified by the Bluecheck Media Girl Gang. Amazing. But how to get them all on board? Does anyone know if Xi Jinping ever wrote a moderately cringe passage about dating life in the Bay Area? Is anyone interested in forging one? Let’s save some lives.
Link Library // May 25, 2021
Authoritarianism has ebbed and flowed through Western history, and in its more ascendant periods has always come a strong reaction. Rebellion. A journey to the borders and beyond. Welcome to the realm of the western pirate, namesake of this here little island on the internet. Ryan McEntush pitched me a literary history of the phenomenon, and I of course had to say yes. Check it out.