Made by Hand, Designed by Apple

This is yet another in a series of blog posts authored by the students in my PhD seminar on Public Intellectuals, being taught this term in USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Made by Hand, Designed by Apple

by Andrew James Myers

 

Apple’s recent release of two new iPhone models — the iPhone 5s and 5c — was heralded with a pair of videos celebrating the aesthetics of each of the devices’ design and physical materials. The first, a 30-second spot entitled Plastic Perfected played at the 5c’s unveiling and aired on national TV, shows abstract swirls of liquid colors against a white background, gradually molding itself into the form of the iPhone 5c’s plastic shell. Other components, like the camera and the small screws, emerge spontaneously from within the molten plastic, until the idea of the iPhone is fully materialized, having literally created itself.

 

 

The other video, a companion piece also shown at the company’s iPhone presentation, depicts a mass of molten gold against a black background, swirling elegantly and weightlessly to sculpt itself into the iPhone 5s. Hovering components gradually descend into place, and the phone spins to present its finished form.

 

 

Over this past year, in my research of Apple’s marketing, I have watched hundreds of Apple’s ads and promotional videos extending back to the 1980s. For me, these most recent iPhone promotional videos were a surprising addition to this research, as they embody the purest and most potent distillation yet of a longstanding trend in Apple’s marketing. Apple’s marketing texts have long been preoccupied with constructing a certain aesthetic myth for the creation of Apple products. This mythical origin story at its essence taps into notions of vision, creativity, and genius while obscuring the devices’ real-world material origins as the product of concrete human labor.

 

Apple frequently releases “behind-the-scenes” promotional trailers for each of its major product launches. In Apple’s (widely-accepted) view of product creation, the valuable labor occurs in the realms of engineering, design, executive leadership, and software engineering. This is reflected in two significant patterns in the visual rhetoric of its behind-the-scenes videos: exclusive focus on automated robotic assembly processes, and animated visualizations of components spontaneously self-assembling against blank backgrounds. In the narrative framing constructed by these three rhetorical patterns, human labor at assembly factories like Foxconn is completely erased, written out of Apple’s corporate self-identity.

 

 

For example, consider the above making-of video for the iPhone 5c. The first visual pattern, exclusively showing automated labor rather than human labor, is always accompanied by a verbal discussion of manufacturing innovation. As we watch Macs and iPads being built, we almost never see a pair of human hands; in fact, I have been completely unable to find a single instance where worker hands — much less a full body or face — are shown in an Apple video made after 2008. Hands as a visual symbol and touching as a ritual are instead reserved for the consumer (“The fanatical care for how the iPhone 5c feels in your hand”), with frequent close-ups of disembodied hands touching, gripping, manipulating the product’s glossy material glory.

 

Second, Apple’s particular imagination of creation is manifest through its animated visualizations of how components fit together inherently and effortlessly. In one major type of these animations, components float in layers in the air, slowly and gracefully layering themselves into a snug assemblage. The molten-plastic and molten-metal ads discussed at the beginning of this post are merely the most recent (and visually extravagant) iteration of this aesthetic. Designing how components will fit together into ever-shrinking cases is essential to Apple’s hardware aesthetic obsession over making products as thin and small as possible. The designers’ work of putting the jigsaw puzzle together conceptually is seen as the real feat; actually putting it together, on the other hand, is trivial.

 

The visual rhetoric embedded in Apple’s videos clashes intensely with how Apple’s production process has recently been covered by journalists. Beginning in 2006 and climaxing in early 2012, the popular media has actively worked to raise awareness of the labor conditions of the individuals who work in the overseas factories producing Apple’s popular iPods, iPhones, iPads, and Macs (along with, secondarily, the electronics of almost every other major brand). This sensational story gained wide exposure by juxtaposing the brand mystique of Apple — perhaps the most meticulously and successfully branded company in the world — with a dystopian behind-the-scenes narrative completely at odds with Apple’s image. In response to this narrative in the Media, Apple has responded with a number of public relations initiatives, including a few  laudable measures that have genuinely improved supplier transparency and labor conditions. Yet, as labor violations in Apple’s supply chain continue to surface, and as Apple’s publicity materials continue to gloss over the human labor involved in product assembly, it is clear that much more needs to be done to address these issues.

 

A few weeks following two high-profile reports in the New York Times and NPR in early 2012, Apple responded to the negative publicity with a press release announcing that it would for the first time bring in a third-party organization, the Fair Labor Association, to independently audit its suppliers.[1] Apple also exclusively invited ABC news to visit the audit, yielding a 17-minute story broadcast on ABC’s television newsmagazine Nightline.

 

The Nightline piece offered the first journalistic footage from inside Foxconn’s assembly facility, and the pictures produced were astonishing. Reporter Bill Weir expresses surprise at the magnitude of manual labor he sees, repeatedly suggesting that simply seeing the factory process at work will cause viewers to “think different” about their Apple products. “I was expecting more automated assembly, more robots, but the sleek machines that dazzle and inspire… are mostly made by hand. After hand. After hand.” On Apple’s historical secrecy about its product manufacturing, Weir offers one interpretation. “If the world sees this line,” comments Weir over footage of a long, crowded assembly line, “it might change the way they think about this line.” Cut to a shot of a huge crowd of American consumers lined up to get inside a New York City Apple Store at a product launch.

 

What the Nightline piece lacks in the kinds of sensational details of other reports on Foxconn, it makes up for with the sheer visual impact of the startling images. We see exhausted workers collapsed asleep at their stations during meal breaks, the infamous suicide nets, the cramped 8-to-a-room dorms, and the apprehensive demeanor in the faces of prospective employees lining up outside the gates. The report even stages a moment in which the reporters visit a town and show an iPad to poor parents of Foxconn workers, none of whom have ever seen one.

 

After ABC’s first exclusive look inside Foxconn, other reporters were granted access to the factory, leading to a significant rise in video footage being broadcast and circulated online. More and more people were being exposed to the reality that iPads and iPhones are made by hand, by real humans struggling in almost dystopian conditions.

 

As I have researched and grappled with these issues, I have collected every relevant video I could find onto to my hard drive, which has over time become quite an exhaustive archive of Apple’s promotional material. At the same time, as I attempt to write about my research, I am frustrated at my incapability of fully conveying so many of the visual qualities of the videos I was analyzing in written form. My initial interest in the topic had sprung from an intangible, emotionally-entangled reaction I had to the aesthetic contrasts between Apple’s promotional videos and journalists’ Foxconn coverage — and I wondered whether it would be possible to make more impactful points through a visual essay rather than a written paper.

 

At first, I had in mind little more than a rather conventional expository documentary — nothing more than an illustrated lecture. But after taking Michael Renov’s fantastic seminar on documentary, I decided to try something a little more avant-garde. Inspired by documentary essayists such as Emile de Antonio, Jay Rosenblatt, Alan Berliner, Hollis Frampton, and Elida Shogt, I was interested in testing out these filmmakers’ innovative editing techniques for constructing original arguments by re-appropriating archival footage. I realized it might make a difficult and enlightening challenge to create a compilation documentary purely with archival footage — without voiceover, interviews, or text. I finished a 12-minute first cut of video essay this summer, and the result is below.

In contrast to the affordances of the written essay, one strength of the video medium that surfaced during editing was an ability to engage more directly with the kinetic and haptic experience of the body. In her essay “Political Mimesis,” Jane Gaines describes revolutionary documentary’s ability to work on the bodies of spectators, to move viewers to action. “I am thinking of scenes of rioting, images of bodies clashing, of bodies moving as a mass,” writes Gaines, suggesting that “images of sensual struggle” are a key element of a number of political documentaries. Gaines argues that certain depictions of on-screen bodies can produce in the audience similar bodily sensations or emotions, which inspired me to focus in my video essay on the concrete bodily attributes of sweatshop labor.

 

Gaines’s article brought me to formulate the central recurring visual motif of the film: a montage of close-up hand movements. I wanted to illustrate the corporeal vocabulary through which American consumers define their interaction with technology (moving and clicking the mouse, gesturing on a trackpad, tapping and swiping on a tablet), and offer in contrast the bodily relationship factory line-workers have to those same devices: repetitive, slight, monotonous movements.

 

As mentioned previously, the human bodies of workers — even their hands — are conspicuously absent from the footage Apple uses in their promotional videos about the making of their products. I tried to draw attention to this gaping corporeal absence with an extended montage segment of these fully-automated factory processes played simultaneously over an audio track explicitly addressing the harsh conditions for the factory workers we’re not seeing. I hoped that by explicitly cultivating a sense of mimetic identification throughout the rest of the film, the sequences of hands-free assembly would stand out as somewhat ghastly and unnerving.

 

Whether this film is successful in communicating its analysis is for others to decide; for me, I both enjoyed the novel experience of making it and feel like the video editing process forced me to think about the material I was working with in new ways. Focusing on making an argument through juxtaposition pushed me to look new contrasts and valences between bits of material I had not noticed before, to consider formal elements like timing and word choice with a new level of scrutiny, and to see my potential output as a researcher and advocate as perhaps not limited strictly to writing books and articles.

Andrew James Myers is a Ph.D. student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California, and holds an M.A.
in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA. He is post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library, and
assisted in the creation of Lantern, an online search tool for archival media history. A former co-editor-in-chief of
Mediascape, his research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history,
new media, and documentary.

 

 


[1] Apple Computer, Inc., “Press Release: Fair Labor Association Begins Inspections of Foxconn,” (2012), http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2012/02/13Fair-Labor-Association-Begins-Inspections-of-Foxconn.html.