Here at Macworld we talk about Apple quite a lot. Hopefully readers forgive this monomania; after all, as Android fans point out when complaining about perceived bias, it's right there in our name. And we were obsessed with Apple before it was cool.
But many non-specialist news outlets also spend a disproportionate amount of their tech coverage talking about Cupertino's finest, as the average web browser can scarcely fail to have noticed. Stories about Microsoft's Surface line of tablets inevitably end up talking about the iPad; anything to do with Android is likely to at least mention the iPhone.
To an extent, all of this is understandable, given Apple's influential position within the consumer tech industry; not to mention how reliably its name generates good copy, high web traffic and passionate reader engagement. And we'd guess that Tim Cook sheds few tears at the thought of having his firm's name shoehorned into reports about rival projects. But sometimes it means we're missing a larger point.
Take Apple's hardware supply chain. Over the past decade or so the Asian factories where many Apple products are assembled have become an object of great curiosity to the western media, and with good reason: again and again, it's been found that workers toiling at the bottom of this stupendously profitable operation are overworked, underpaid and shockingly mistreated.
Back in 2006, The Mail on Sunday reported that the 32,000 employees at an iPod plant owned by Hon Hai Precision Industry (now better known as Foxconn) earned £27 a month and slept in triple bunks in large 'dormitories' that were essentially just repurposed factories. A subsequent audit found they were working more than 60 hours per week about a third of the time, and were occasionally made to stand to attention as a form of punishment. (I wrote briefly about this at the time: Inside the iPod factory)
After the launch of the iPhone in 2007, concerns intensified; Foxconn's factories became notorious for the suicides of workers, one of whom had reportedly lost a prototype iPhone 4 and been beaten and interrogated. At one stage, upsettingly, it announced plans to install netting around the roof of its facilities.
Here are a few more of the numerous articles Macworld alone has written about working conditions in Apple-affiliated plants:
The wider picture
These are injustices that need to be exposed. And it's undoubtedly a good thing that the media is interested in the poor treatment of low-paid workers; it's a better thing that pressure from human rights organisations, amplified by the media, has obliged Apple to audit its supply chain and try to enforce higher standards of worker treatment. It's even true that much work undoubtedly remains before Apple will be in any position to boast about the ethics of its supply chain.
But the iPhone-sweatshops narrative that makes for such pleasing headlines is afflicted with tunnel vision: it's a mistake to imagine that mistreatment of factory workers is something for which Apple alone is responsible, or that Apple is even the worst culprit in a larger system that prioritises profit above human safety, comfort and mental health.
Let's be clear, first of all: other technology companies also have links to overseas plants with dubious human rights records, even if you hear about it less. Shortly before the time of writing (and with far less fanfare than similar incidents affecting Apple), Samsung cut links with the Shinyang Electronics factory in Dongguan after China Labor Watch found evidence of child labour; this only days after the company reported no such concerns in its 2014 Sustainability Report. (Chinese authorities have since reported no evidence of wrongdoing, although this appears to contradict Samsung's own initial investigation.)
And needless to say, the Hon Hai/Foxconn factories didn't just make iPhones; almost all of Apple's rivals have ties of some kind with the Asian manufacturing giant. But every story referred to the buildings as iPhone factories, because that's the easiest journalist sell.
Technology holds the potential to make society a more humane place, but - and I say this as someone who makes by global standards an exceptionally lucrative living just writing about consumer technology - it very rarely does so.
We demand high-precision electronics at an affordable price; we demand updated devices every year and don't want to be bothered about what happens to the old ones. You can have these things, or you can have a technology industry that pays a decent wage to its workers and protects the natural environment (another area where Apple's performance has come under greater scrutiny than any other company, and where - presumably as a direct consequence - its record is now among the best of its peers). You can't have both.