When I was younger, I used to name my electronics. For example, my first iPod was called “Horatio” and my second “Duckie.” I think naming them created a bond between us, and in a way, it humanized them. But what exactly was I humanizing and why?
I decided to do some research on the manufacturing of the one product I can’t live without: my HP laptop. At first, finding information was hard: manufacturing processes weren’t exactly listed on their website. But once I began looking, the information was clearly there, for anyone to see and read.
HP, or Hewlett-Packard, is an American company. In fact, they pride themselves on their American heritage. HP claims that their PC workstations and commercial desktops have been assembled in the USA since the beginning of their company1. They go on to state that building locally allows for a higher product. But what about laptop computers? Apparently only a “limited amount” are built outside of China1.
Maybe the parts are being assembled in America but where exactly are these parts being made?
Companies such as Quanta, Compal, Wistron and Foxconn make parts for HP computers (and nearly all other laptop and computer brands). These companies manufacture the laptops that HP sells. Quanta even claims that one in every 3 laptops are manufactured by them2.
These “local products” aren’t so local after all.
(Above: an image of brands that Compal manufactures to, as seen on their website3)
The issue with foreign manufacturing lies in workers’ rights. Countries such as China and Taiwan don’t have the same rights for workers as countries like the USA and Canada4. I’m sure most of you have heard of the riots, suicides and terrible working conditions associated with the Foxconn company. Although most of these complaints focused on Apple, the manufacturing process isn’t much different for other companies4. Not all manufacturing companies and factories have terrible working conditions, but they all do have an issue with dehumanization.
In the video5 above, it is clear that the workers have fine working conditions. What is so unsettling about this video then? I believe it’s the fact that we’re forced to look at how the products we love and use are made: by other human beings. What’s happened is that, in the consumer’s mind, the person has been removed from the product. Foxconn employees began a strike after HP cut orders and one man worded it perfectly: “we aren’t robots.”6 In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Rachael Rosen is told not to worry because she is “property of the Rosen Association” (60). While Rachael is an android, the workers in the Foxconn factory feel as if they are treated as one, reducing them to the same thing: property. Like the androids, these workers are human but at the same time, they are products. To the Western world who ignores the manufacturing process, the foreign worker becomes nothing more than the products he or she creates. The worker is dehumanized.
At the same time, the product itself is humanized, and becomes a thing of worth. The laptop computer becomes a thing we want, and need, and use. We come to identify with our electronics, and they become human to us: we love our laptop, we miss our laptop, we get angry at our laptop. The “organic android” (16), too, is humanized: they become so real that it is nearly impossible to distinguish one from another human being, unless they take an empathy test (30). The androids are electronics, manufactured by companies such as Rosen, yet they are human-like and real. They are beyond objects, and although not quite human, they are nearly there, like the laptop computer we identify with.
The Taiwanese worker becomes the robotic parts of an android while the human part, the part we see and feel, is the laptop computer they make.
Is there a more ethical way of manufacturing? I’m not entirely sure. To be more ethical would mean to a) enforce workers rights (which would mean they would have to be paid more which means we would pay more for our products which would lead to many unhappy consumers…) and to b) become aware of who makes the products we consume and the work that goes into making them. Would seeing the workers’ faces and hearing their voices render them more real and the product less so? Maybe there’s a c) option that needs to be created… disconnecting the maker/human back from the product. But how do we humanize a person and dehumanize an object?
If we can relate and feel empathy towards our laptops, or as Deckard does to androids, then how is this empathy at all? How can we feel for something that doesn’t have feelings?
Don’t you find it kind of sad that we’re more empathetic to a product than the person who made it?
“All those moments will be lost, in time, like tears in rain.”