An old rule states that you are a mere six degrees of separation away from anyone else on the planet. For some people, however, the world is even smaller. So let me propose an amendment: You are only one relative, friend or acquaintance away from one of the late Steve Jobs’ creations.
You may be browsing this on a new iPad, one of the 30 million Apple sold last year. Or perhaps you are viewing it on an iPhone screen. Maybe your children are reluctantly putting away their iPods, of which Apple sells 5 million worldwide every three months (a remarkable figure, but half the 10 million Jobs and his colleagues were shifting each quarter in 2008 and 2009).
And if you have really never done any of those things, rest assured the British prime minister has.
“The cool thing is that I now control my iMac from the iPad, to play out through the speaker,” British Prime Minister David Cameron boasted a few months after moving into Downing Street. It was one of those canny-to-the-point-of-irritating references he used to specialize in; a flash of his real-world accreditation.
As Cameron knows, Apple is a byword of everyday sleekness. Yet there is another way of viewing the company. Focus instead on the way it does business, and all those iPhones, iPods and iPads are not just exemplars of design and user-friendliness: They are devices that destroy Western jobs. And they do so needlessly, because if the California-based giant manufactured its goods in the US rather than China, it could still make profits that would be the envy of every other US business.
This is, I know, an unorthodox position. When journalists or politicians discuss the way that Western companies make goods in China, or anywhere else in Asia, they almost always start from the premise that this is how business is done nowadays. This is the commonly accepted logic of globalization, which enables companies to keep their costs down, which allows the ordinary Westerner to spend less money shopping, and which also offers poorer nations in the east to develop their economies. Expensive shirts might still be made in Italy, high-end kitchens might be assembled in Germany — but the future of mass production inevitably lies in China.
Apple has both made and benefited from that argument. In January, the New York Times ran a lengthy investigation of the technology firm’s manufacturing processes, which began by disclosing a conversation last year between Jobs and US President Barack Obama. The president asked why Apple products could not be made in the US. The most admired man in Silicon Valley was reportedly blunt: “Those jobs aren’t coming back.”
Very few people argued with that assessment. In other ways excellent, the New York Times’ piece had an elegiac tone, conveyed by the headline How the US Lost Out on iPhone Work. And the following commentary went on in this it’s-not-you-it’s-me vein. It was not Apple’s fault it did not hire Americans to make its goods: It was the US’. US workers weren’t skilled enough; not enough of them were trained in engineering.
Such national self-abasement has the merit of at least feeling like a policy, but it is debatable whether on its own it really will pull in big employers. Apple, after all, used to base its manufacturing in the US. Jobs used to boast about how the Mac was “a machine that is made in America.” And according to new research by the Center for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), it is clear that it would not only be affordable for Apple still to make its goods in the US, it would remain hugely profitable.