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Dan Ancona

Building a better iPhone

The iPhone may be the single most discussed gadget in history. On top of a pile of positive reviews, the haters have lots of material to choose from. Steve Jobs' recent and almost bizarre bout of Rush Limbaugh-approved teacher's union bashing, Apple's brilliant but disturbing if you stop and think for a second ad campaigns, and locking it to a network provided by a vendor with complicity in government privacy incursions, for starters. The problems folks have seem mostly to do with either the environmental impact (i.e. chip fabrication processes that still involve lots of rare metals and nasty chemicals), or a social justice one (i.e. any level of consumer spending feels a little icky in a society with wealth disparities as out of control as ours).

Another frequently made argument has been that objects are the wrong place to look for happiness. But since when have beautiful things, and beautiful tools, stopped making us happy? Most people want to be effective, and communication tools help them do just that. It may not be as satisfying as a vacation with one's family, but that doesn't mean that things like design aren't important or worthy goals.

American technology loving progressives are making a big bet. They're putting their chips down on the possibility that at some point, technology is going to turn out to be the best tool ever for breaking up and sustainably decentralizing the concentrations of power that the industrial and post-industrial American economy has so far produced. That hasn't exactly panned out so far, but we'll see how the next couple of election cycles go. And it certainly won't happen without a deliberate effort.

Since the arguments mostly fall into two buckets - having to do with either the environment or social justice - there's another layer of meaning here. We want our iPhones, but what we want just as much is for the progressive future to get here already. On the environment front, what we need is cradle-to-cradle industrial processes. In architect and industrial designer William McDonough's ecology-inspired formulation, "Waste Equals Food" - the byproducts of one industrial process can be used as resources to drive other processes. On the social justice front, we need anything democratizes economic power: employee ownership, a vibrant labor movement and a return to progressive taxation.

The question is just how we get from point A to point B. It's possible that the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) folks are right, and we can persuade big companies to adopt a triple bottom line (people, planets and profit) approach. The new Democracy Journal recently ran a piece checking in on how the CSR movement is going, and it ain't pretty:

After years of relative futility and millions of dollars spent, progressives who are concerned about market failures and their impact on the common good need to do the responsible thing and end their fixation on corporate social responsibility. It is time to recognize that most market failures can only be solved by governments and multilateral agreements, and progressives need to redirect activist pressure appropriately.

Even companies that want to do the right thing often can't, because, well, they're companies. They exist to make money. The law and their investors require them to do this. Whether the CSR approach works eventually or not, there's an easier and more democratic path forward: toss free market fundamentalism on the junk heap of history where it belongs, and rebuild government and civil society back to where they can effectively countervail the consolidated power of big business.

It's good to make conscious purchase decisions. But life is hard enough: in the progressive future we're building, effective and empowered watchdogs (whether government based or independent) will simplify these decisions by raising the floor for socially & environmentally responsible corporate behavior the old fashioned way: with laws.

The "free" market is an illusion. Markets are playing fields, and the government plays the role of game designer and referee. Without a referee, it's just human nature to try to bend the rules. The interests in power will always yap their heads of about socialism or the nanny state or job killers. It's up to us to ignore the name calling (and maybe, occasionally, come up with our own) and design civil institutions with the capacity to create the economy we want.

Dan Ancona: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:00 AM, Aug 01, 2007 in Democracy | Economy | Progressive Agenda
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