Faced with an app, what can you do?

Faced with an app, what can you do?

Understanding the impact of global production, and the supply chains that lie behind them, has become a significant part of my work. These issues have been brought out over the past few days by the release (and subsequent removal) of a game on Apple's App Store that treats some of the very same concerns. Phone Story, created by radical game developer Molleindustria (and partners, including Yes Men incubator Yes Lab), continues Molleindustria's attempt to "reappropriate video games as a popular form of mass communication" and "investigate the persuasive potentials of the medium by subverting mainstream video gaming cliché." It's the latest in a portfolio of explorations into issues like the impact of the petrol era and creations like every day the same dream that question the narratives of dominant ideology. Each of these explorations takes a slightly different form:

In Phone Story's case, that took the form of four mini-games about the "troubling supply chain" behind smartphones—all smartphones, not specifically iPhones—including coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labour in China, environmental waste in Pakistan, as well as the mania for gadgets in the West. One of the mini-games sees workers leaping from their factory building: a clear reference to suicides and attempted suicides by workers at Apple's manufacturing partner Foxconn.
Stuart Dredge for The Guardian.

Phone Story Video

Phone Story is an interesting exploration, and a hopeful one, but it is has some significant caveats. The app does provide some useful starting points for understanding sourcing problems. Phone Story's narrative on the Congo, for example, echoes the 2009 Global Witness report that describes, through striking imagery, the militarization of mining in the Congo that developed over the last decade. What you don't get from playing the game is that the impact and scope of these practices is complicated, and widely debated. Abstracting the social impact of mining practices to a limited narrative of "conflict minerals in the Congo," minimizes the total reality of mineral extraction. Conflict minerals or not, each and every consumer electronic is tied to a landscape of artisanal mining practices of which few of us are very familiar, and one that includes large portions of not only Africa, but South America, Indonesia, and China. These practices exist in a framework of desperation and exploitation that may (and may not) be tied to direct armed conflict.

Phone Story gathers its narrative from problems that take different forms in different devices. It tries to stand in for an entire sector dominated by materials and labor practices that share a common ancestry. One might wonder if this story could be extended by presenting similar, and specific, games on other mobile markets. Phone Story has quickly shifted over to the Android market, but the narrative still strongly targets Apple, rather than the native manufacturers on that platform that share some of the same practices. While there are many overlaps in supply chains, each has its own set of troubling problems. Each touches on problems of conflict minerals, artisanal mining, environmental contamination, and waste disposal in very different ways.

What is interesting is that this come at a time when Apple has been reinventing itself as a company. While certainly still tightly coupled to the Jobs aesthetic of design, increasing attention has been directed towards the company's supply chain prowess. CEO Tim Cook has been lauded for his leadership in streamlining Apple's supply chain to create economies of scale and dominate new markets. One of the continuing observations about products like the iPad is not simply about the device, but how other companies will try to approach its astonishing price. And this price is deeply related to the supply chain and sourcing practice behind it.

While Phone Story mostly emphasizes the social costs of our mobile devices, it also coincides with the recent release of a report put out by a collection of Chinese NGOs attacking Apple suppliers on the environmental front:

The groups lob several pretty severe accusations at the company in their report, released last week, but a big part of the problem seems to be transparency. Secrecy is key to mind and market-share in the tech world, so how to balance the need for transparency from a social responsibility perspective with the need for secrecy from a business perspective? This is the million-dollar question Apple, and other electronics companies, are trying to answer now. Given the clandestine nature of tech manufacturing, the Chinese NGOs spent several months trying to pinpoint Apple suppliers in the country before investigating the practices of those suppliers.
Amy Westervelt for Forbes

The infamous secrecy of the company makes accounting difficult (although a supplier responsibility report is available). This secrecy is troubling especially in a space where there is already a serious difficulty in collecting accurate reports of conditions on the ground. While some of the suppliers flagged in the report are indeed Apple suppliers, the company revealed that others are not. That's a surprising move from a company as notoriously tight-lipped as Apple. In this, and other recent controversies, there seems to be a trend—small moments of exposure are created by investigations brought with the help of the communities themselves. What we do with these brief moments raises questions about how we want to frame ourselves in this story.

Molleindustria suggests that the mini-games make players "symbolically complicit" in the social and environmental devastation, but in what sense are we already actually complicit? Phone Story is directed towards an imagined consumer audience, but when products become—as we say about the iPhone—ecosystems, there are questions about the responsibility of the participants of that system in the realities of its construction. What is the complicity of app developers making products for these devices? As the packaging on Apple products reminds us, it is "designed in California"—Apple doesn't directly manufacture anything. Are developers, as mere designers, innocent in the realities of the device? If we believe that companies like Apple are responsible, and consumers are complicit along with them, we need to think long and hard about the responsibility that every actor has in ensuring a process of continual investigation and, hopefully, the promise of real solutions.

And there is some hope for solutions. There is an increasing amount of legislation starting to address these concerns, and Molleindustria promises to devote their share of Phone Story's profits to NGOs combatting them on the ground. But perhaps we should consider focusing the discussion on just what percentage of every app's sales should be used for understanding these problems in order to effectively address them. There are few easy answers, and we don't have clear enough senses of what the countries and communities impacted must deal with when they are confronted with the significant opportunities, and significant costs, that come with being a part of our global production.

Comments

Matt, could something like Phone Story be adapted for people to play roles? Each part of the supply chain has its interests and motives. "Damn, I need to get our employees smartphones at a lower cost," says the middle manager. "Damn, I need to streamline our smartphone supply chain for tin to meet all this demand," says an Apple exec. "Damn, I need to find some more tin to get to Apple," says an extraction company planner. "Damn, I need to make money to eat without getting sick or attacked in the process," says the tin miner. "Damn, these tin miners need some protections," says the legislator.

Being able to manipulate those motives from the 10,000-foot perspective of a gamer could teach a lot. It would certainly work in the American debate over natural gas extraction, for example.

Andrew, you certainly could construct this kind of game - and it seems like it would be a more flexible pedagogy for understanding these problems - but it is pretty challenging. The question is how much "choice" any one actor really has in any of these scenarios. There are a number of pieces that explore the motivations of the miners (for example). They believe that this is their best hope for dealing with the economic conditions they face (the money stone deals with the Galamsey in Ghana). How much choice you could model in some of these scenarios comes down to some pretty grim options, and it is difficult to think about how to balance them. Certainly the biggest question is how the game ends. Are there only "bad" endings?