Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition
By Jack Linchuan Qiu
Review by David Wineberg
There are two kinds of iSlaves. One is the laborer, worked to exhaustion in unendurable positions all day, making electronic gadgets. The other is the consumer, slavishly craving the latest version, the newest technology, and the most toys. They reinforce each other, keeping millions miserable. Foxconn alone has 1.4 million employees, far more slaves than Britain had African slaves at its peak in the early 1800s, according to Jack Qiu in Goodbye, iSlaves.
Qiu says great thinkers from Marx to von Mises associated slave labor with traditions of backwardness. They underestimated slavery’s importance in the past and completely missed its continuing vitality. Today, the UN thinks are 26 million in slavery. Qiu thinks it’s more like a billion, the way he defines it.
The electronics age was supposed to take us away from industry into a lighter, brighter, cleaner and more open future. The truth is manufacturing has tripled in the past ten years – but there’s far less of it in the West, and infinitely more of it in the East.
At the core of Goodbye iSlaves is the eerie parallel between 18th and 21st century slavery. Capitalists then got Europeans hooked on a new opiate – sugar – and created a whole economic sector for slaves to grow it and ship it. Today, the sweet opiate is electronic gadgets. Millions of Chinese slave to produce shiploads of igadgets. Worse, just like slave ships that spread netting all around to catch the suicidal, so Foxconn surrounds its housing with netting to catch jumpers – after 15 suicides in 2010 alone. Three million square meters of netting to discourage suicides. And just as on slaveships, protests, fighting and riots are a constant problem at Foxconn.
The real crime here is by China’s central government. Like the US in the 1800s, China won’t touch the overlords. Terry Guo, Foxconn’s owner, defies the Chinese government to jail him if he has broken any laws. He is too big to fail, and China needs him more than he needs China. Guo, an admirer of Genghis Khan, is known by the credo: “You want his money, he wants you dead.” Working for him – not such a pleasure.
How pervasive is Foxconn? A group in California tried to make a computer entirely free of Foxconn products. It proved impossible.
Unfortunately, the fascinating 1700-2000 parallel is buried in dense text. There are four dozen pages arguing the definition of slave. Qiu is forever “restating” and “recapping”. He describes what each chapter is about, and then recaps what each chapter was about. He refers backwards and forwards to other chapters, retelling the same stories. Pulling the essence out is not easy. But the message is crucial. He quotes the designer of an alternate smartphone: “We’ve lost any connection with the source of how it is made, who made, where does it come from and the social consequences attached to it during the production process …. Every pixel you see, every byte you send, has a whole world of minerals, factories, recycling and distribution behind it.” I’ve read exactly the same things about our food. Our society is totally detached from the sources of its consumption. So iSlavery thrives.
Editor's note: This review was has been reposted with permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.