I went to Smith Union on Tuesday evening intending to find a handful of students to talk to me about the stories that have been percolating in the national news about Apple, Foxconn, and labor exploitation in China. Walking around the Union, I counted 70 people and at least 70 Apple products including MacBooks, iPods and iPhones.
If you skim the news once a week, it's possible that you missed the story, though it has been a recurring item since early this year. On January 8, the public radio program "This American Life" devoted an entire show to performer Mike Daisey's dramatic exposé of Foxconn. The New York Times ran a front page investigative piece on January 26 under the headline "In China, Human Costs are Built into an iPad." More ink has been spilled on the topic since. On March 18, "This American Life" ran an hour-long retraction after it came to light that Daisey had lied about many of the experiences he related in the show.
I spoke to over 70 students for this article, and only one of them owned zero Apple products. A small handful had only one, but most people had two or three. The pervasiveness of Apple on Bowdoin's campus is unmistakable; if you haven't noticed it already, it is because the gadgets are so ubiquitous that they blend into the background.
I started out asking people if they knew anything about the recent news stories about Apple factories in China and labor exploitation there. For about half of the people I spoke to, my question was the first they had heard on the subject.
According to the New York Times, Apple products are made in China, and one of its main suppliers is Foxconn. Foxconn is the biggest private employer in China; 1.2 million people work in its factories producing over 40 percent of the electronics in the world. Many major electronics brands contract with Foxconn factories, but as the world's largest technology company, Apple has been the main target of censure as a result of these investigations.
Foxconn factories are huge compounds where the workers are generally low-skilled and underpaid, according to the New York Times. To put it simply, the labor conditions in these factories would never pass muster in America. Shifts are long, wages are meager, conditions can be dangerous, labor advocate groups are thin on the ground, and industry standards are not always adhered to.
There are obvious questions to be asked: does our pervasive Mac use mean that the student body should know and care about this issue? Despite the College's dedication to the common good, are we so insulated within the "Bowdoin Bubble" that we are largely unaware that the company so many of us support allegedly fuels sweatshops in Asia?
However, in the course of trying to gauge knowledge about this story, it became clear that this issue is a vehicle to investigate how Bowdoin students interact with the news itself. I started asking people whether they had heard of Foxconn or not, and how they got typically got their news.
Everyone I asked claimed to visit news websites sporadically at minimum. A few people got news from paper sources. Of these, most, like Sean McElroy '12, David Steury '15, and Emily McDonald '14, read The New York Times in Moulton Dining Hall at breakfast (no one said they read the paper in Thorne Dining Hall). Everyone in this group supplemented reading the print paper with online news.
Rachel Schwemberger '12 came across the Foxconn story on the Times website when she opened her homepage. Hillary Cederna '13 uses Yahoo! as her landing page and said she had "read the article about the new CEO visiting the factories" that ran on the site earlier this week. Landing pages like these ensure at least a cursory interaction with the news a few times a day: if you don't click away before the page loads, you at least glance at the top headline before moving on to another site.
Online news consumption for students tends to mean spending 10 to 20 minutes reading headlines and skimming a few articles that seem particularly noteworthy.
Molly Pallman '12 said, "I glance at the headlines and read articles I think are interesting," a sentiment that characterizes the news habits of many of the people I spoke with.
Most of this traffic is on news sites or aggregators. Greg Rosen '14 and Tristan McCormick '13 are among a smaller subset of students who use cell phone apps to get news from sources like CNN, NPR, Pulse, and the Times.
Social media was not a prominent source of news, though some people did list Twitter and Facebook among their news sources.
"If there's something big happening, I'm going to hear about it on social media before I hear about it on The New York Times," said Leah Greenberg '13 in reference to the deaths of Whitney Houston and Osama Bin Laden.
Luisa LaSalle '14 echoed Greenberg. She hadn't heard of the Foxconn story, but said she wasn't surprised, citing the bad press Nike has gotten on the same type of issue. She said she does not typically find news first, but often hears about it on "Facebook when people update their statuses."
Riker Wikoff '12 had seen the story in headlines but had not read much more about it. He reads the Huffington Post or the BBC and categorized his news consumption as a "procrastination tool," a recurring answer from students.
The last notable avenue by which the Apple story managed to seep into students' consciousness was through class. The story was discussed in Professor of English William Watterson's Literary Pastoral, Professor of History David Hecht's Science, Sex, and Politics, Professor of Sociology Nancy Riley's senior sociology seminar and Theater Department Chair Roger Bechtel's Theater History and Theory.
In short, the handful of people who said "Foxconn" when I said "Apple factories in China" were the ones who regularly read a newspaper and check several other sources, as well as those who had listened to the "This American Life" story. Most students nodded when I asked about sweatshops and Apple, but could not give me any details—these students identified as news grazers and said they go on Huffington Post, CNN or the Times quickly most days and scroll through the front page. Students who had never heard the story admitted their grazing was usually more brief and perfunctory.
Though few students knew much about the Foxconn contraversy, the campus is not apathetic. The posters all around campus testify to students' commitment to a wide range of causes. Some people I spoke to echoed this sentiment. Augusta Rice '14 talked about the ethos at Bowdoin and the importance it places on "doing good things for the world, for the environment and for the community." Tristan McCormick agreed, highlighting what he called as a sense of "being a responsible citizen by being in the space of Bowdoin."
Though the widespread use of Apple products and lack of anti-Foxconn activism may read as apathy, various students suggested that the factory is part of a larger problem.
LaSalle pointed out that Nike, which has accrued its own bad press about sweatshops in southeast Asia, sponsors all varsity athletics at Bowdoin. The reality, said LaSalle, is that "people know but choose to ignore" because it's hard to always find ethical alternatives.
Others added that, in reality, Apple is not the sole perpetrator and trading in one's computer is not going to solve the problem.
As Jay Tulchin '13 opined, "component parts of most electronics are made in a factory in China, so you can't really avoid it." Tulchin said he felt the "focus should be on labor practices as a whole, the specific industry is irrelevant."
Because Apple products are so visible on campus, it is certainly remarkable that though nearly everyone I spoke to said they use Apple products to get news, about half of them missed the story about the company that makes these products.
There are myriad reasons why this story did not make a splash at Bowdoin. For one, it is hard to make time for more reading on top of what is assigned for class.
Certainly, the limited traction of the Foxconn story shows that Bowdoin students' approach to news consumption seems to be glancing at a battery of headlines and zeroing in on the few articles that stand out.