Digital Slavery?

by Rachelle Jereza, Binghamton University (SUNY)

Goodbye iSlave: A Manifesto for Digital Abolition, Jack Linchuan Qiu (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2017)

In Goodbye iSlave, Jack Linchuan Qiu draws on slave studies and world-systems theory to situate Appconn – his term for the Apple-Foxconn alliance – within a longer history of capitalism beginning in the sixteenth century. For Qiu, the persistence of slave-labor conditions in the digital economy, or iSlavery, links the Appconn system to previous capitalist world systems, especially the seventeenth-century transatlantic triangular trade of slaves, rum, sugar, and profits (many anthropologists will be familiar with this trade from Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power, which showed how sugar produced by slave labor in Atlantic colonies helped fuel the industrial revolution, and a revolution in consumerism, in nineteenth-century Britain). This approach to the digital economy is controversial, Qiu admits, yet he contends that it is necessary to understand “the darkest corners of digital industries” (p. 174).

Qiu’s provocative framing of Appconn as the most recent iteration of the capitalist world-system, and as propped up by slave labor, troubles narratives of emancipation and progress that often accompany technological innovations in the digital economy. In this regard, his discussion of the dehumanizing conditions that Foxconn workers experience is particularly illuminating. In addition to the physical violence that Foxconn security personnel inflict upon workers on a regular basis, Foxconn employees are made to work illegal overtime hours, are isolated from friends and family, and are made to navigate excessively complex bureaucratic processes if they wish to terminate employment. Moreover, if workers try to escape through suicide by jumping off of Foxconn buildings, they are stopped by suicide prevention nets, which, as Qiu points out, were installed not out of regard for workers’ safety but to safeguard company profits. Foxconn is also quick to wash their hands of responsibility when workers are injured on the job. For instance, Qiu describes the case of Zhang Tingzhen, a Foxconn worker who sustained a life-threatening head injury when he fell while attempting to repair a lamp. Foxconn’s failure to transport him quickly to a hospital, only two miles away, severely worsened Tingzhen’s condition. After undergoing multiple surgeries, which involved the removal of part of his brain, Tingzhen can no longer speak, has lost much of his ability to think, and can no longer work. Meanwhile, the Foxconn subsidiary where Tingzhen was employed refused to assume any legal responsibility for his injuries and claimed that Tingzhen worked for another factory located in a city he had never visited (p. 72).

While Goodbye iSlave succeeds in revealing the inequalities and unjust labor practices that undergird the digital economy and fuel its profits, Qiu’s analysis of Appconn through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade glosses over the specificities of enslaved Africans’ experiences. Here I agree with digital labor scholar Antonio Casilli who contends that linking past and present labor conditions by appealing to notions such as slavery neglects the particularities of colonized and enslaved peoples’ realities. For example, Qiu argues that Foxconn’s reduction of workers’ salaries, “thus coercing them to quit their jobs ‘voluntarily’,” and the company’s laying off of “disposable workers” are analogous to the discarding of slaves’ bodies “during the nightmare of the Middle Passage” (p. 68). While Foxconn workers experience severe economic precarity, this comparison trivializes the experiences of enslaved Africans.

Furthermore, Qiu’s treatment of slavery itself as a model for digital labor is uneven. Although he writes that “attempts to create a precise definition for slavery may…distract us from understanding the true operations of enslavement including its latest permutation in the twenty-first century” (p. 24), he advances several, not entirely consistent, definitions of slavery throughout the book. Early on, he writes that “a rudimentary feature of slavery is that it imposes a system of inequality” (p. 24). He later relies on detailed international guidelines established by the Research Network on the Legal Parameters of Slavery to argue that Foxconn workers are in a de facto condition of slavery. Elsewhere, he draws on Orlando Patterson’s concept of natal alienation, but he misinterprets it to draw equivalencies. In Patterson’s Slavery and Social Death, natal alienation refers to the rituals through which white masters systematically erased enslaved Africans’ inherited ways of being in and understanding the world. Qiu’s argument that Chinese migrant workers are natally alienated solely through their isolation from kin in factory zones and their separation from family and friends due to labor migration is a false equivalency that grossly misrepresents what enslaved Africans endured. Although the isolation that Chinese Foxconn workers experience is dehumanizing, these conditions are qualitatively different from that of enslaved Africans, for whom entire ways of being were violently and systematically erased in colonial societies.

Qiu’s contention that Apple’s cultural hegemony renders the consumer of its products another iSlave further muddles his use of slavery as critical lens through which to understand digital inequalities. He he writes that through Apple’s corporate marketing, the consumer’s “subjectivity becomes fully captured in the consumerist mode” and that “free will is…minimized to the extent that people are turned into slave-like entities under totalizing hegemonic control” (p. 93). This understanding of consumption erases the rich human interactions that take place through new media and fails to engage with scholarship that attends to the diverse and creative ways in which people use digital technologies. Moreover, the characterization of iSlavery as either manufactured or manufacturing rests on a dualism between material and immaterial that, as Antonio Casili argues, at once ignores the development of robust consumer markets in Global South contexts and neglects production in the Global North.

Finally, measured against an anthropological standard, the lives, subjectivities, and perspectives of those living and working in Foxconn campuses remain underexplored in this book. Chapter three in particular, which draws on Qiu’s own observations of a Foxconn campus, is a missed opportunity to delve deeper into how the various social actors of Foxconn, including security personnel, managers, workers, their friends, their loved ones, and Chinese state actors, navigate the alliance between these two giant corporations and the Chinese state. While Qiu’s book brings attention to the hidden and deeply exploitative conditions of digital labor that make possible our world of new media and technologies, anthropologists interested in digital media might prefer more deeply-embedded ethnographic approaches that can offer complication and surprise, revealing the myriad ways in which relations with big tech—from multiple positions as consumer, worker, and even critic—now indeed shape the realities of people all over the world.

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