Mr. Robot versus Steve Jobs

mr-robotMr. Robot is a highly entertaining and well crafted TV show that I enjoy watching (and clearly I’m not alone). It appeals to my geeky side – which is most of me, frankly. The main character is a “hacker” who leads a double life. On the outside, he is a brilliant and reliable IT worker at a cyber security company. On the inside he might be described as a kind of neurotic anarcho-communist struggling with unbearable weltschmerz from observing the state of existential nihilism that defines the “you-are-what-you-buy” lives of ordinary people. This pain he keeps under control by sniffing morphine in carefully controlled doses.

Mr. Robot is a show that does a lot of things right. The casting is spot on and the acting is convincing. The plot is rich and pleasingly non-linear. The pacing feels right. The show effectively immerses the viewer in an ominously dark universe where evil corporations control the world by exploiting everyone outside of their tight spheres of self-serving benevolence, and where our ability to purchase lots of stuff at low prices is a symptom of that evil disease, consumerism, rather than the happy fruit of prosperity.

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And for once, we get to actually see computers on TV that don’t go “Ping!-Ding!-Bzzz!” whenever you run any sort of program on them and don’t require a whole half second for each iteration of a simple image search. The computer interaction in Mr. Robot is quasi-realistic, even using actual Linux command-line tools and descriptions of computer networks. Thank you, dear producers, for hearing our prayers to get rid of those silly “Hollywood computers” that we have had to endure in every other show on TV for thirty years – thank you from the bottom of my geek heart!

Our protagonist hacker, Elliot, is on the right track: he has realized at a very young age (it took me more than thirty years) that the world is run by big corporations in cahoots with big – and corrupt – government. But he is yet misguided. Although he presents (in the five episodes I’ve seen so far) no solution to the problem, he does seem to be strongly opposed to the marketplace and, if pressed on the matter, would probably recommend some sort of anarcho-communist solution. While anarcho-communism is of course an oxymoron and the best way forward is moving towards anarcho-capitalism, I will leave that debate aside for now.

What I do want to discuss is a statement that Elliot makes in the first episode about Steve Jobs. He muses about our sick society: “…is it that we collectively thought Steve Jobs was a great man, even though we knew he made billions on the back of children?”

That Apple has used child labor, albeit indirectly through its suppliers, is a fact that Apple has admitted.

However, lets look at this statement a bit closer. Making a profit “on the back” of someone – what does that imply? For one thing, it implies that we are talking about a win-lose situation. Steve wins, the child loses. But is that really what happened?

In any free-market transaction, both parties win. I give you my money because your product has more value to me than my money. You give me your product

steve jobs

because my money has more value to you than your product. Otherwise, there would be no transaction. That is the simple beauty and power of the free market.

Of course, China does not have a free market – no country in the world does, not “even” the US of A. In fact, the US is quite similar to China in terms of fascist-like cahooting between big business and big government, what some would call crony capitalism (although it has nothing to do with capitalism so we need a better word for it – suggestions welcome!)

The ‘children’ that we are talking about were in some cases 14-year-olds students that the Chinese government pushed into ‘internship’ at Foxconn after the latter had trouble filling their production quotas after a series of worker suicides in 2010. This seems relatively well documented, though it is hard to find reliable sources on activities inside China. This is another example of similarities between China and the US – the mainstream media are tightly controlled and mainly serve the government and big corporations. An article about the ‘interns’ was published in China Daily in 2010 but only the headline and lead can now be seen – for some reason this article has been removed, as the only on on that day’s stories.

But again, we see how big business and big government look after each other, with little regard for regular people. Even so, the shift that China has made from old-school socialism towards US/EU-style fascism with a degree of ‘free’ markets has had a tremendous positive impact on the welfare of the average Chinese citizen. If the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics figures can be trusted,  the average yearly wage for Chinese urban workers rose from 14,040 yuan in 2003 to 47,593 yuan in 2012. The chart below shows a similar trend.

china gdp growth
Growth in GDP per capita, China – present USD. Source: World Bank.

For many Chinese, including those under 15, hard work in city factories is an opportunity. Like children in European cities in the 19th century, they would rather toil in a factory in conditions that we spoiled 1st-worlders would never deign to submit ourselves to, than stay in even worse conditions where they came from. As during the western industrial revolution, government did worse than the privat sector by the poor, including the children.

Steve Jobs may have been a rude and a very tough boss to work for. But the truth is that the global trade between China and the US, of which Steve Jobs was a part, has helped lift millions of Chinese out of poverty while at the same time providing US consumers with tremendous value for money, cellphones included. He did not make his billions ‘off the back of children’.

Nevertheless, I still look forward to the rest of Mr. Robot.



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