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The Gadget Is Dead. Long Live Technology!

Courtesy of Consumer Electronics Show Press

Conspicuous, thoughtless consumption just isn’t cool anymore.

The most buzzed-about thing to come out of the Consumer Electronics Show this week? A lurid, Hunter S. Thomspon-esque “fever dream” by Gizmodo writer Mat Honan that captures the disorienting nature of a big trade show, CES being just about the biggest.

Going into CES this year, no one seemed to be excited, and expectations have pretty much been met. When one slows down to think about it, how much more awesome can technology get? Well, there’s OLED televisions, with their vibrant color and amazing images, but that’s not the kind of information that can actually be transmitted via screenshots and YouTube videos on a tech blog. Those who have not seen OLED in action don’t know what they are missing. Literally.

Even then, it’s just a new display. Not the kind of life altering technology that smartphones, tablets, and set-top internet-based media centers have been. Until we have ingest-able movies, CES is going to be really boring. All the real action is around software. Who needs a dedicated gadget when you can just download the function to your phone/car/refrigerator?

I’m still not sure why I’d want Angry Birds on my fridge. No wait… that could be cool.

Oh. Sorry. Got sidetracked there for a second.

So if CES has been lame this year, what has the tech sphere been buzzing about? (Other than SOPA that is, because sadly that’s not dead yet either.)

How about a threatened mass suicide by workers at the Foxconn factory in Wuhan, China?

Over 300 employees who work on the Microsoft XBox 360 assembly line got on top of a factory building and threatened to jump en masse. Foxconn, which owns the factories that nearly every major tech company uses to manufacture their goods, has made headlines before for a series of suicides.

(Mad props to the video game blog Kotaku for being on the reporting front line on this latest worker revolt. A sign that gamers aren’t thoughtless consumers of entertainment content, but passionate hobbyists who care about where their fun comes from.)

The timing of the worker revolt was uncanny. Not only was the mainstream press focused on tech thanks to CES, but the most recent episode of This American Life featured a long excerpt of monologist Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” specifically the part of that show dedicated to Daisey’s trip to China to investigate Foxconn. Daisey is horrified by what he learns, and it shakes his status as an Apple fanboy to the core. The back end of the TAL episode is an examination of the facts Daisey presents in his monologue, and a few interviews with experts on working conditions who corroborate most of his observations while adding some nuance to his interpretations. It’s a must-listen.

One major obstacle for worker’s rights advocates, the shroud of secrecy that tech giant Apple keeps over its supply chain, has fallen just today. Critics have long pointed out that it is impossible to verify the company’s claims of due diligence if the suppliers are not known to independent third parties.

As noted by endgadget, the Cupertino company has revealed the names of all of their suppliers in their annual “Supplier Responsibility Progress Report” for the first time. Analysts have long interpreted Apple’s secrecy around their supply chain as an attempt to keep corporate rivals off the scent of their development process. By sacrificing that secrecy, Apple has opened for workers’ rights advocates to hold the most powerful brand in tech to their word. Which will make it all the harder for other companies to keep the press, shareholders, and consumers in the dark about where their magical and wondrous devices come from.

The tech industry has done such a good job marketing to us all that gadgets and gizmos have become a ubiquitous, and increasingly invisible, part of our lives. Our intense emotional relationships with our gadgets is a given now; it’s a relationship that is maturing. Like in any serious relationship, the lure of the shiny and new is fading. In its place, the concern for what values this relationship reflects — not just what it seems to say about us, but what it actually means– is rising.

This story was originally published on TurnstyleNews.com on January 13, 2012.