published Friday, February 4th, 2011

Tech Talk: Responsible outsourcing


by Donnie Jenkins

One of the most troubling aspects of technology is its hidden or difficult-to-see side effects, especially in the production process. The most famous recent example of this is the online buzz about the Foxconn production factory in China that produces many of the communication devices that we value so highly.

Techcrunch recently ran a story featuring a video interview with Mike Daisey that raises some valid points on this subject. I liked this feature very much, especially because Mr. Daisey does not attempt to trash companies such as Apple who use Foxconn and other factories to produce their goods. He instead raises the question of how to balance our love of these gadgets with some sort of accountability for how they are produced.

As more and more products are outsourced internationally, it will become difficult to be aware of the specifics concerning their creation and production. Daisey makes a good argument for becoming more aware of such matters while not trying to tear down the industries that are so important to us.

Outsourcing of production and especially of job creation is a constant topic of conversation these days. It appears to be a trend that is here to stay, and this worries many analysts who lament the loss of our country's manufacturing base.

One excellent documentary on this was produced by HBO. "Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rage" tells the story of how the garment industry has almost disappeared in this country in a very short time.

I watched this program again recently and it is an excellent example of one of the major problems of our day: How do businesses compete without outsourcing their production lines to other countries with cheaper labor?

Companies such as Walmart and others have made having the lowest price the major issue in all purchases. This has always been somewhat true, but the move to outsourcing most production to China and other countries has amplified this trend.

Critics of this trend believe we need to redefine the concept of "cost." For example low prices depend upon paying low wages to workers even in this country. Many critics of companies who outsource point to the data suggesting that the American government winds up subsidizing these companies by having to pay medical and other costs that the companies don't pay. Also, low wages for long hours has its own "costs" in the lives of those who are forced by their circumstances to take these jobs.

Technology has created these many double-binds, and they will not be solved simply by blaming one entity or the other. One bright spot is the trend toward social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The recent unrest in Egypt and other countries has shown the tremendous generating power of social media.

Companies and even countries have shown that they recognize the power of the voice of many thousands of people when they are organized and dedicated to a cause. Perhaps in the future it will be one of these social media sites that gives rise to a change in consumer behavior or the practices of businesses.

While Facebook is often maligned for its sometimes trivial nature, there's no doubt that it played a huge role recently in the Egyptian situation-so much so that the Egyptian government allegedly felt it necessary to literally turn off the Internet in that country. Keep that in mind the next time someone jokes about getting Poked on Facebook.

E-mail Donnie Jenkins at donniejenkins@yahoo.com

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