This post originally appeared on The Question Concerning Technology. It’s republished with permission.
To borrow a line from Chuck Berry, it goes to show you never can tell.
I embarked this week on a bit of historical research, thinking I might find some connections between the factory workers of the digital era and those of the industrial era. Along the way I found myself confronting deep questions about the relationship between technology and spirit.
As most people know, there’s been a raft of publicity lately about the conditions that prevail in the mega-factories of Foxconn, the Taiwan-based company that produces many of the digital devices we love so well. Even as Foxconn was denying that its workers are mistreated, the company announced it was raising their salaries by as much as 25 percent, its third announced pay increase in the past two years. Overtime hours are also being reduced.
No doubt these adjustments are aimed in part at repairing some of the damage to Foxconn’s public image, and to the public images of its clients, notably Apple Computer. A dozen or so employee suicides in rapid succession tend to attract critical scrutiny.
That’s not the whole story, however. Several reports also point out that Foxconn is at pains to stabilize the high rates of employee turnover in its factories, turnover that suggests the company may not always be able to depend on the vast, pliant pool of migrant labor that’s fueled its explosive growth so far.
All this struck me as having some interesting parallels with the evolution of labor policies in the factories of an earlier breakthrough technology, the automobile.
In 1913 Henry Ford introduced the moving assembly line at his Highland Park factory in Michigan, revolutionizing the process of mass production. The following year he revolutionized his company’s relationship with its workers by introducing the Five Dollar Day, a pay rate that more than doubled the average employee’s salary. He also cut back the standard shift from nine to eight hours.
There were strings attached, including requirements that Ford’s standards of cleanliness and sobriety be met at home as well as at work. Nonetheless, for the legions of mostly immigrant workers who besieged the employment office at Highland Park, the Five Dollar Day redefined what it meant to earn a living wage.
Like the pay raises at Foxconn, the Five Dollar Day was aimed at reducing unacceptable rates of employee turnover. The profits Ford was realizing with his production efficiencies were being eaten up by the cost of replacing 370 per cent of his workforce a year. Workers hadn’t yet grown accustomed to the grinding routine of the assembly line; absenteeism was also rampant. The Five Dollar Day effectively encouraged employees to show up, and to stick around.
Whether by luck or by design, the Five Dollar Day also established one of the foundational principles of modern consumerism: Pay employees enough so that they can afford to buy the products they produce. This, too, is part of what’s happening in China. Foxconn employees want to own iPads and iPhones as well as make them. Economists and environmentalists are having fun contemplating the implications of a shift in individual buying power in China today analogous to that unleashed in America in 1914.
This was pretty much what I expected to find when I started looking into the history of the Five Dollar Day. What I didn’t expect to find was that Henry Ford’s institution of that policy may have been inspired, at least in part, by the Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
It’s an irony of history that a man who loved nature as much as Henry Ford would have so much to do with its destruction. According to biographer Robert Lacey, Ford was a great admirer of the naturalist John Burroughs. He gave Burroughs a Model T in hopes of persuading him that cars, by providing people with means to escape the pestilent cities, would promote rather than undermine the cause of conservation. Burroughs presumably was unconvinced, but he did manage to infuse Ford with his passion for Emerson.
Lacey says the Five Dollar Day reflects in particular the ideas expressed in Emerson’s essay, “Compensation.” Ford often gave copies to friends, and a close associate said it “comes nearer to stating his creed than anything else.” It’s not hard to see why, given that Ford was a billionaire who believed in reincarnation, and who sometimes said he belonged with “the Buddhist crowd.”
“Compensation” distinctly demonstrates the degree to which Emerson’s transcendentalism resonates with Eastern religions. “The true doctrine of omnipresence,” he says in one passage,
“is that God reappears with all his parts in every moss and cobweb. The value of the universe contrives to throw itself into every point. If the good is there, so is the evil; if the affinity, so the repulsion; if the force, so the limitation.”
In another passage he adds, “The soul is.
“Under all this running sea of circumstance, whose waters ebb and flow with perfect balance, lies the aboriginal abyss of real Being. Essence, or God, is not a relation or a part, but the whole. Being is the vast affirmative, excluding negation, self-balanced, and swallowing up all relations, parts and times within itself.”
As we used to say in the ’60s, far out.
We know that Steve Jobs was well acquainted with the principles of Zen Buddhism and Hindu mysticism. With the works of Emerson, probably not so much. There’s no mention of Emerson in Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, or in several other books on the history of Apple I’ve read. Jobs wasn’t known as a reader (neither was Ford), and I’d guess that “Compensation” would have tried his patience. It’s as abstruse and as silly in spots as Emerson’s other essays, and as wordy. Still, one imagines that if Jobs had read it, he would have recognized its affirmation of some of the cosmic truths he held dear.
Basically “Compensation” is a meditation on what in Eastern terms would be called karma and the interplay between the yin and the yang. The gist of the message is that no one, in the end, gets away with anything. “A perfect equity,” Emerson says, “adjusts its balance in all parts of life …
“Our action is overmastered and characterized above our will by the law of nature. We aim at a petty end quite aside from the public good, but our act arranges itself by irresistible magnetism in line with the poles of the world.”
The subject of work is directly addressed sporadically, but those mentions are telling. “Human labor,” Emerson says, “through all its forms,
“from the sharpening of a stake to the construction of a city or an epic, is one immense illustration of the perfect compensation of the universe. The absolute balance of Give and Take, the doctrine that every thing has its price – and if that price is not paid, not that thing but something else is obtained, and that it is impossible to get anything without its price – is not less sublime in the columns of a leger than in the budgets of states, in the laws of light and darkness, in all the action and reaction of nature.”
Robert Lacey cites this passage as suggestive of Ford’s realization that he wasn’t enjoying the advantages he could have enjoyed from his assembly line because he wasn’t paying heed to the absolute balance of Give and Take. He wasn’t paying the price.
This isn’t to say that reading Emerson suddenly turned Ford into some gooey-eyed idealist. Many scholars argue that the Five Dollar Day was less about sharing the wealth than it was about gaining control of an unruly workforce. Ford himself described the policy as “one of the finest cost-cutting moves we ever made,” but he also insisted he’d rather make 15,000 families happy than to make 20 or 30 millionaires.
In any event, the Five Dollar Day accomplished its mission, and helped ignite the engine of consumerism that defines, as much as anything, the American character to this day. In that sense Steve Jobs most assuredly carried Ford’s legacy into the 21st century.
It’s impossible to say how Jobs would have responded to the controversies regarding Foxconn that continued to escalate after his death. In a June, 2011 interview, two months before he stepped down as Apple’s CEO, Jobs said he was deeply troubled by Foxconn’s employee suicides, but insisted that Apple was doing “one of the best jobs in our industry and maybe in any industry” of monitoring the working conditions in its supply chain. Even if that’s true, Apple’s critics argue that doing “one of the best jobs in our industry” doesn’t necessarily mean the company is doing enough.
There’s not much evidence, in Isaacson’s biography at least, that during his lifetime Jobs spent a lot of time thinking about the people who assembled his products. There’s endless talk about purity of design and the seamless integration of hardware and software, but no substantive discussion of workers, factories, or China. Foxconn isn’t mentioned at all. I think it’s fair to conclude that Jobs was far more focused on what it feels like to use the iPod, the iPad, and the Mac than he was in what it feels like to make them. His talent lay in empathizing with his customers, not with his factory workers.
It would be unfair to expect Jobs to have been all things to all people. Like everyone else, he had his strengths and his weaknesses. Still, it’s regrettable that a man who believed so strongly in the holistic integrity of Apple’s products, inside and out, seems to have paid relatively little attention to the human beings who literally bring those products into the world.
In his better moments Jobs had to have realized, if he allowed himself to think about it, that there’s an inherent karmic imbalance in the production of Apple’s products. The devices he shepherded so carefully to market promise to open paths of individual freedom and creativity. That’s why he believed they made the world a better place, and that’s why we love them. The revelations about the working conditions at Foxconn remind us that individual freedom and creativity are not the values that prevail on the assembly line.
As consumers, most of us give far less thought to what it’s like to work on the line than Steve Jobs probably did. Our disinterest ignores Emerson’s absolute law of Give and Take. “Treat men as pawns and ninepins and you shall suffer as well as they,” he said. “If you leave out their heart, you shall lose your own.”
Associated photo on home and category pages: Old Five Dollar Bill – 1934 by Kevin Krejci, on Flickr