We cannot maintain the authenticity of our products unless we are truly proud of where they come from.
I’M AS EXCITED BY GREAT IDEAS AS THE NEXT GUY.
The foundations of our economy hinge on the ability of kids in Silicon Valley to come up with compelling new ways to do things. And there’s some justification in continuing to worship at the altar of innovators such as Steve Jobs, whose vision for user-friendly interfaces between humans and their microchips has ushered in an era of pay walls, digital rights management schemes and advertising-laden apps that could save professional content and marketing at the same time.
We might as well canonize Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, too, whose glorified website has served not only as the platform for dozens of multimillion-dollar independent derivative businesses, but also as the justification for a multibillion-dollar social media investment craze.
I myself spilled a good amount of ink (and later bytes) promoting the notion that America’s future rested with the brainpower of college students working on extra-curricular projects in their dorm rooms and self-taught hackers programming late into the night fueled by little more than pizza and pot.
But while America and most of its Western counterparts rush to become idea-based economies capable of generating the mental constructs to sustain us and our markets and our currencies through the 21st century, we end up leaving aside an important sector: labor—the people who actually make stuff, people who touch physical materials and transform them into products we want to use, people who provide actual services to others, from dental hygiene to brain surgery, gas pumping to jet engine repair and, yes, Web coding to algorithm programming.
Ideas are cool, but they are highly speculative, low probability investments. In a 2010 Bloomberg Businessweek essay, Andy Grove (the legendary CEO of Intel under whose leadership the company arguably became the world’s most powerful and permanent technology creator) questioned the primacy of inventors, “the guys in the garage inventing something that changes the world.” And he challenged former U.S. Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Alan Blinder’s belief that “as long as knowledge work stays in the U.S., it doesn’t matter what happens to factory jobs.”
Ideas people may catalyze economies, but makers and doers comprise and sustain economies. The danger of outsourcing manufacturing jobs to China is not that the Chinese will get so good at making iPhones that they will steal our ideas. It’s much simpler than that. It’s the disconnection of workers and facilities from the creation of value.
Even in a free-trade world, nations need to do more than come up with a few hundred high-tech ideas for others to execute. We can’t live off the app store—not while we still need things such as food and heat and healthcare.
But more importantly, we cannot maintain the (buzzword alert) authenticity of our products unless we are truly proud of where they come from. They must originate from a real place, and that place and its people must become inextricably tied to the things it produces.
Way back when, consumers opening a box from Apple Computers were welcomed with the message “Made in Cupertino California.” For those of you old enough to remember that little identifier, think back to the images it conjured: weird and wonderful computer geeks somewhere on the mythic Apple campus, assembling the Macintoshes we used to work creatively. The sense of place, of origin, of humans making stuff, was both a brand identity and an American reality as ideologically and economically potent as GM’s plant in Flint, Michigan.
When an iPhone is made in so many places that it actually comes from nowhere, we do not—we cannot—have the same relationship with it. It doesn’t matter if it’s more efficient on some level, in the short-term, for Apple or its shareholders to do business this way. In the long term, exchange rates will compensate for any advantage, and the loss in domestic competency and manufacturing processes will make it impossible to reverse course. (Shortly before he died, Steve Jobs told U.S. President Barack Obama this much explicitly: “Those jobs are not coming back.”)
I am writing this piece on my way home from Switzerland, where I tried to convince a bunch of CEOs—some of the best manufacturers in the world—why it’s OK to pay domestic workers for high skill levels, why having a strong currency is not a sign of bad business practices and why people around the world will pay more for a product that comes from somewhere real.
In a cultural universe defined by tweets and updates, and a consumer universe characterized by mp3s and rented video streams, real takes on new significance. No brand mythology can replace the way something feels in our hands, tastes in our mouths or works without breaking. That’s not ideas; it’s craftsmanship.
By insulating and alienating ourselves from the ways the things we think up are actually made, we lose touch with the processes that define them. We separate ourselves from the greater culture around them. We miss out on the smell of the factory floor, the first example (and celebration) of a new model coming off the line and the real-world romance of our chosen industry.
That’s the source of the next great ideas, anyway. One+
One+ May 2012,