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The iPhone 5's Impossible Design Comes At A Very Real Price

When you hold the iPhone 5 it feels, frankly, unreal. It’s lighter than it has any business being, it’s thinner, it’s smoother. Regardless of how you feel about Apple, its latest phone seems too good to be true.

Turns out, that’s because it is. And the thousands of workers charged with fulfilling that impossible vision are breaking down under strain.

There’s a massive strike at Foxconn today, but for once it’s not over living conditions or pay. As China labour Watch reports, it’s because Apple has finally asked them to tilt at too large a windmill.

The production process was one of Apple’s most prominent marketing bullets on the day it announced the iPhone 5; the video above fetishises precision machine work and assembly in a few people would outside a mechanical engineering seminar. In Jony Ive’s own words:

“The materials [iPhone 5] is being made with, the remarkable precision with which it’s been built. Never before have we built a product with this extraordinary level of fit and finish. We’ve developed manufacturing processes that are our most complex and ambitious.”

Emphasis added, although the whole video is quite emphatic. The iPhone 5 is unprecedented, Apple says. It pushes manufacturing to places it’s never been. It just so happens we maybe shouldn’t have tried to go there in the first place.

Take the CLW’s official report on the strike, which reads like a Bizarro World version of Apple’s iPhone 5 accolades:

It was reported that factory management and Apple, despite design defects, raised strict quality demands on workers, including indentations standards of 0.02mm and demands related to scratches on frames and back covers. With such demands, employees could not even turn out iPhones that met the standard.

Comparing the two statements side by side is like reading Upton Sinclair after watching a Jimmy Dean ad. You think your iPhone 5 scratches easily? Try keeping it unscuffed on an assembly line. You think it’s crazy thin? Try cramming dozens of components in that body undamaged. There’s no excuse for Foxconn workers beating up on demanding quality control inspectors; they were just following unattainable orders.

You can’t fault Apple for dreaming the impossible dream. But it’s worth remembering that it can — and has — turned into other peoples’ nightmare.

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