Tag Archives: fairness

The Social Costs of the Hardware Revolution – A Postscript

For now, this can be only a short postscript to what I had to say earlier today about the CNN Money article by John Hagel and John Seely-Brown on “the hardware revolution.” It has to do with a question that occurred to me as I read, and to which I don’t yet have anything like an adequate answer. That will take some research. But I at least want to articulate the question.

Startups and smaller companies can now play in the hardware space in part because the barriers to entry have been lowered, Hagel and Seely-Brown observe. There are a number of factors at work here. New and cheaper technologies from 3D printers to more user-friendly software put the design and manufacture of hardware within reach of smaller companies. And “a new class of factories” will produce the smaller orders that new entrants and entrepreneurs typically require:

New infrastructural elements have also helped new hardware products move from the hobbyist’s basement to the startup garage. Before, to get a contract manufacturer’s attention, you had to commit to producing high volumes (say 50,000 or more units). But a new class of factories — mostly in China and Mexico — will manufacture batches as small as 5,000 units. By filling low-volume orders, these factories have filled an important structural hole in the market: They allow entrepreneurs to launch new products for small consumer groups with little investment.

My question is whether conditions and, for that matter, sourcing practices in this new class of factories, and the more fluid hardware market they serve, are not going to be terribly difficult to monitor. We’ve seen how challenging it is even to ensure fair labor practices in large-scale manufacturing facilities in China used by major global technology brands; now, as smaller-scale manufacturing facilities proliferate and Mexico becomes a technology “quicksourcing” destination for American companies, the problem will no doubt be aggravated.

The reasons for this are probably obvious. I would frame the issue in a few ways. First, how much visibility do these smaller players actually have into their supply chains? Second, how much leverage do they actually have with their manufacturers, since they are only placing small orders, and, depending on their success, may or may not be repeat customers? Third, there’s a question about whether these small businesses — the small hardware startups placing orders and, for that matter, the manufacturing facilities taking them — have the capacity to take on the human rights challenges that seem inevitably to accompany outsourcing.

In other words, the social costs of the hardware revolution deserve some careful consideration.

Who Are the Real Anarchists Here?

You would think the bombings at the Swiss and Chilean embassies in Rome last Thursday would have a sobering effect on some of Julian Assange’s most vocal American critics, especially those who have styled him a “terrorist” or “anarchist.”

The bombers in Rome identified themselves — in a note vowing to “destroy the system of domination” — as belonging to the Lambros Fountas cell of the FAI, the Federazione Anarchica Informale (not to be confused with the Federazione Anarchica Italiana). The parcel bomb they mailed to the Swiss embassy seriously injured a mailroom worker’s hand. A member of the Chilean embassy staff lost two fingers and may not regain vision in one eye.

We are told that the anarchists were striking back after a recent joint Italian-Swiss anti-terror operation led to the arrest of their Swiss and Italian cohorts. The group also aimed to avenge the death of Chilean anarchist Mauricio Morales, who died, in 2009, when a bomb in a backpack he was carrying exploded in downtown Santiago. At least that is the story “according to the bourgeois press”; some of Morales’ supporters counter with the explanation that “the device exploded unexpectedly, and our comrade died in combat” and they point to widespread arrests after Morales’ death to suggest some conspiracy of the authorities against them.

There is no doubt such a conspiracy, but most likely not the one the anarchists imagine. Be that as it may, we are being asked to entertain the idea that these embassy bombings are acts of vengeance, rough justice meted out for perceived injustices, and that these are as it were symbolic or at least significant acts, the Federazione Anarchica Informale having decided “to make our voice heard with words and with deeds.” The allusion here to the “propaganda of the deed” is supposed to dignify or elevate these acts, and accord them some historic significance.

Of course it would be absurd to compare Julian Assange to these anarchists and Wikileaks to the Federazione Anarchica Informale. Anarchists do not always or even usually advocate violent overthrow of government; not all anarchists are terrorists, and most terrorists are not anarchists. These distinctions matter, and it’s not sufficient to use terms like “anarchist” or “terrorist” loosely.

Julian Assange and his supporters have gone to great lengths to distance Assange from the charge that he is an anarchist and to emphasize that no one has been physically harmed by the leaking of diplomatic cables. And — as I noted in a previous post — Assange himself is right to point out that what he is doing is “civil” if not obedient, and certainly not anarchic or violent or a form of terror.

He has also rightly understood the agenda of those who play the terror card when talking about Wikileaks. So when Cenk Uygur recently asked Assange to respond to this loose talk – which we’ve heard from Pete King, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Joe Biden, and a host of other fear mongers and demagogues – Assange didn’t hestitate to call them the real anarchists:

Uygur: Now, I want to give you a chance to respond personally, though, because here Mike Huckabee is making it very personal. You saw that quote we had up. He says, I think anything less than execution is too kind a penalty for you. Sarah Palin is saying that you are like al Qaeda and the Taliban and he — you should be pursued with the same urgency.
So how would you respond to Mike Huckabee, who is a top Republican leader, who’s likely to run for president again?
How do you respond to Sarah Palin, a top Republican leader who might run for president again?
Assange: Oh, it’s just another idiot trying to make a name for himself. But it’s a — it’s a serious business. I mean if we are to have a civil society, you cannot have senior people making calls on national TV to go around the judiciary and illegally murder people.
That is incitement to commit murder. That is an offense. You cannot have senior people on national TV asking people to commit an offense.
That is not a country that obeys the rule of law.
Does the United States obey the rule of law?
Because Europeans are starting to wonder whether it is still obeying the rule of law?
And it needs to be very careful.
Is it going to descend into an anarchy where we don’t have due process, where those great Bill of Rights traditions about due process are just thrown to the wind, when — whenever some shock jock politician thinks that they can use it to make a name for themselves?

There may be anarchists among us, but they may not be who we think they are.

A Response From Bill Carvalho – On Sustainability and Sardines

This afternoon I received an email from Bill Carvalho, President of Wild Planet Foods, in response to my Sunday post about sardines and sustainability. I’ve included the full text of Carvalho’s very thoughtful email as a comment below my original post. I wanted to cite a couple of paragraphs from the letter here, and didn’t want to give the impression that I was taking his words out of context.

Carvalho takes time in his note to address all my points, even the point about creating “a fairer, and more equitable world order,” in the phrase of the Georgetown Agreement. “In my personal opinion,” Carvalho writes, “that requires much more than social and ecological audits; that would require that we all submit ourselves to a moral audit, something that we can leave for another conversation.” I hope someday we can have that conversation, here in New York, or there in Eureka, California, or maybe in Vietnam.

Who knows how that would all turn out. I don’t know about Carvalho’s qualifications as a father confessor (or, for that matter, my own); but he is a good correspondent: for the most part he doesn’t dodge tough questions or deliberately confuse things. He sets me straight about carbon footprints. And he even offers some insight concerning the Wild Planet canning facility in Vietnam.

We do consider the effects of our decisions on the environment and desire to treat our customers and business partners with dignity and respect. The one cannery we use near Ho Chi Min City [sic] is owned by a long-time acquaintance who lives in the San Diego area. We selected this facility for the same reasons we choose business partners here in the US: trust in their integrity and confidence in their competence. The facility is a small enterprise by global standards which is precisely what we needed in order to teach them the specialized handling techniques needed to produce the superior quality products featured in our line. Our increase in activity at their plant has meant the creation of many dozens of new jobs in highly respectable conditions. It is interesting that the cannery provides meals for all workers daily and also owns an apartment building in which they provide housing for many employees. Your comments on how a cannery can be an economical boon to a region or community are exactly what has happened in the case of our friend’s cannery in Vietnam. I don’t think it is out of line for U.S. residents to provide economic benefits to Vietnamese residents given the history between these two countries that has not been exactly mutually beneficial.

That last sentence requires some careful parsing and further thought. Luckily, there will be more on this point from Wild Planet soon:

We have decided to a post detailed explanation of our selection of our processing partner and address issues of carbon footprint on our website and that should be up shortly. We have also decided to fully disclose the processing country on our packaging. We were not seeking to conceal data from consumers and are comfortable explaining these points as we have nothing to hide.

For my part, I am going to start researching a trip to Ho Chi Minh City. I would like to meet and interview some of the cannery workers, visit the apartment block where they live, and see the cannery in Ho Chi Minh where they pack the sustainably caught California sardines. Who knows if I’ll get there anytime soon. But maybe, if I’m lucky, or persistent, I will.