The arcologies arise

By Razib Khan | January 21, 2012 2:52 pm

How U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work:

Apple executives say that going overseas, at this point, is their only option. One former executive described how the company relied upon a Chinese factory to revamp iPhone manufacturing just weeks before the device was due on shelves. Apple had redesigned the iPhone’s screen at the last minute, forcing an assembly line overhaul. New screens began arriving at the plant near midnight.

A foreman immediately roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, according to the executive. Each employee was given a biscuit and a cup of tea, guided to a workstation and within half an hour started a 12-hour shift fitting glass screens into beveled frames. Within 96 hours, the plant was producing over 10,000 iPhones a day.

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

The story emphasizes that labor costs are not the primary issue here. There is the natural discussion of skill levels, and the sheer number of Chinese works coming online. But there simply is no way that Foxconn City could exist in the United States today. There is no way I can deny the massive quality of life improvements in China over the past generation. But, the flip side of this is that a way of life has now emerged organically in places like Shenzen which is rather reminiscent of late 19th and early 20th century dystopian visions of the industrial future.

  • Mike Pearson

    At the time – and even today – I didn’t think that China merited the MFN status that President Clinton granted it. I think that China has benefited greatly from that change in status, and this was a fairly foreseeable consequence. By ‘this’ I mean the improvement in quality of life for many Chinese, the movement of low/medium skilled jobs to China, and the growth arcologies that you mentioned. I don’t think that the Confucian love of education (supplying them with the workforce needed today) and the desire for an enlightened bureaucracy will lead to Western style civil liberties and democracy – but maybe it will lead to something freer and with a more accountable government than they have now. Maybe a society with a greater middle class wouldn’t allow the degree of corruption and negligence that allowed all of those unsafe schools to be built in Sichuan, with the resulting tragedy.

    And maybe here in the US we’ll get over the notion that we are failing in our education if we don’t get each high schooler into a good college. We don’t seem to value educating a person to the technician level – the sort of skills that the article says are lacking here. Too many people end up going to college, flunking out, then goingto DeVry or IIT to end up with an education that is appropriate – one that could have been had in high school for the most part.

  • Tim Kowalsky

    No US plant can match this “flexibility” because no US plant is allowed to treat employees like cattle. The question is, do we want our businesses sending our money to countries who can screw us economically by these methods?

  • Yacko

    Robotic assembly lines are taking over, even in China, and yes, at Foxconn. Whether this changes the playing field and things flow back to the US, or to other places is unknown. The concept of massive numbers of overexploited workers will be a footnote.

  • Markk

    “The story emphasizes that labor costs are not the primary issue here”. that is true, the story suggests this, but I think the story is wrong. The whole point was that there was interconnectedness because of other things being built there. There is no magic logistics in China, just locality (from manufacturing experience). Why were other things being built there? Because of reduced labor and regulatory cost.

    Why has GE spent 100’s of millions on R&D facilities, with ALL major new ones in India and China over the last 10 years? They say, to build where the new markets are, and that may be somewhat true, but cost is king.

    There could have been very similar speed in the US. The cost would have been much higher because of regulations on worker safety.

    The thing to remember though is how fast those factories were built. They can be built that fast again elsewhere. We’ll see how things sustain. Not that there won’t be a huge industrial base in China for a long time, but as efficiencies increase, for the U.S., I suspect the origin of goods will swing all over in the next 20 years.

  • Kirk

    The urban population will skyrocket from 3.5B to 7B by 2050. That means that everyone who is alive today would be urban. They will not all get their coffee at Starbucks or their clothes from American Apparel. Just the special people like you will do that.

  • Mustapha Mond

    Razib wites:
    “the flip side of this is that a way of life has now emerged organically in places like Shenzen which is rather reminiscent of late 19th and early 20th century dystopian visions of the industrial future.”

    …and Tennessee Ernie Ford sings:


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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