iPhone girls and institutional culture

“I wake up every morning, jump in the shower, look down at the symbol, and that pumps me up for the day. It’s to remind me every day what I have to do, which is, “Just Do It” – Twenty-four-year-old Internet entrepreneur Carmine Collettion on his decision to get a Nike swoosh tattooed on his navel, December 1997”

    – Naomi Klein, No Logo

The hyperconsumer. Someone who has a personal connection with a brand, following them with a similar devotion to that of the football supporter for their team or ardent nationalist for their country. They make for striking images, allowing Klein to back up her arguments about how people relate to brands or Nakamura to draw distinctions between two very different “iPhone girls”. The problem with using them as examples is that they’re also aberrations. Just as only a tiny minority of those who are willing to spend a substantial amount of money on a crisp pair of Air Force Ones would ever dream of getting Nike’s logo tattooed on their body, most Apple consumers are not hyperconsumers. Nakamura claims Kim Yeo Hee’s use of her three iPhones to create backing tracks for pop music covers is an “ingenious repurposing”, when what is created doesn’t seem vastly more sophisticated than the music of the late Anton Maiden. Instead of ingenuity it’s more like watching someone throw money at a problem until a solution just about presents itself. Kim’s work as a maker is not only vastly different from that of the majority of smartphone users in general, it represents something that would only be created by a tiny subset of iPhone users, and seen as strange even by those who do buy the company’s products and regard themselves as “makers” or “creatives”. She’s a hyperconsumptive novelty act. Nevertheless the figure of the Apple hyperconsumer is being contrasted in Nakamura’s article with that of the Chinese manufacturing worker, when the former is a tiny subset of a tiny subset and the latter represents one of 112 million people according to 2010 figures in The Economist.

This leads to the question of what is created by this contrast. Overwhelmingly, what we find here is an analysis that is focused on consumption rather than production. Writing about the spate of suicides in the Foxconn factories that produce devices like the iPhone, Joel Johnson asks “Did my iPhone kill 17 people?” A chain of responsibility is drawn between consumer and producer, with the consumer possessing agency, responsibility, privilege and power over the unnamed worker who constructed their technological plaything. Using hyperconsumers of an expensive brand such as Apple to create this hierarchical relationship generates a skewed vision of the consumer in general. When you consider that in the UK use of the government’s Universal Jobmatch site can be a condition of continuing to receive benefits, and accessing a variety of services and applying for work is extremely difficult without access to a phone, ownership of a device that makes phone calls and connects to the internet seems much less like the luxury Nakamura characterises it as. The neoliberal idea that consumers have power over the production and provision of goods and services shifts responsibility for pay and conditions away from the governments and capitalist enterprises who actually have some degree of control over such matters and onto individuals who are made to feel that they have committed a moral crime for wanting consumer goods. Nakamura’s claim that “some work in the factory so others might “make”” focuses solely on the most privileged users of consumer electronics, and the statement that “The crucial difference between the Korean iPhone girl and the Chinese iPhone girl has to do with their differing access to digital agency as makers” glaringly avoids all of the other differences. Kim Yeo Hee’s use of three iPhones suggests she not only had access to much more disposable income than the workers of a Foxconn factory even before she got a recording contract, but was probably in a much better financial position than the majority of workers in the global North. Why is the crucial difference in the two “iPhone girls” not their wages, access to healthcare, ability to unionise or anything else? Has the upsurge in industrial action in China in recent years really been about being allowed to dream of becoming a digital creative? If not, why is this image of the “maker” being seen as having importance over and above that of an image used in the branding particular company?

In their video dialogue Anne Balsamo and Judy Wajcman discuss the idea of introducing increasing numbers of women into organisations and how this can then reach a critical mass that alters institutional culture. They note that the number of women in high positions in business hierarchies in the UK has been increasing, and the same is also true for the number of MPs. Nevertheless, the Coalition government’s cuts have still disproportionately affected women. Why is this? Put simply, a patriarchal system is still patriarchal even if those operating it are women. So attempting to tweak the demographic make-up of those at the top of the hierarchy does little to nothing to alter the way it operates, regardless of the intentions and character of the individuals that are introduced. Changes in “institutional culture” can make more space for women to enter privileged spaces, but it cannot change the fact that most women (and most people) can never have access to such spaces. The parallels I see between the focus on consumers and consumption over workers and production in Nakamura’s article and Balsamo and Wajcman discussing the idea of a demographic fix for institutional failings are that they both place responsibility on individuals instead of systems of economic and political governance and both inevitably silence the majority of the population, and disproportionately silence women. Alterations in the consumption habits of digital creatives and hyperconsumers or packing boardrooms and parliaments with women means the focus of attention and activity is on small sections of society. Even when the digital creatives are thought of as the cognitariat Bifo describes and given a potentially crucial role in the struggle for liberation from capitalism, he’s making a mistake by over-inflating the importance of a group of people who inevitably have a disproportionate media presence (after all, they’re making it). The cognitariat do however point to shifts in how capital employs workers, with increasing use of zero-hour contracts, temps and freelancers meaning companies keep the specifics of their workers’ conditions at arms length by outsourcing more and more. If that is the case, then why would demographic alterations at the top of the hierarchy make any difference? They push the responsibility for such things onto the workers themselves, much as capital has always pushed the costs (financial, emotional and physical) of reproducing the workforce it requires onto women.

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One comment

  1. […] This is the point where the discussion turns towards affirmative action, a choice of focus that another component has already discussed. Similarly, Terranova’s article on free labour in the digital economy was fascinating (and […]

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