People were done manufacturing on American soil. How could he or anyone argue for spending five to ten times what it cost in Asia? And when Asian wages rose to untenable levels—$5 an hour, say—there was Africa. (II.62.14)
Alan finds himself in an awkward professional position: he either goes with the flow and does what his company wants (i.e. find cheap labor) or fights the power and loses his job (which won't change anything, anyway). It's literally a no-win situation.
Alan is the best at what he does—which includes offshoring jobs and making production more efficient—and finds himself kicked to the curb when his own job is no longer relevant. Eggers' story hits home for many Americans who were unable to make the transition from a manufacturing economy to one that's more technology-based.
Alan knew, and the retailer knew, and the family knew, that that bike had been made by hand a few hundred miles north, by a dizzying array of workers, most of them immigrants…and that that bike would last more or less forever. Why did this matter? Why did it matter that they had been made just up Highway 57? It was hard to say. (VI.59.50)
Alan—like many Americans—senses that it's both important and necessary to manufacture goods in the U.S., and to have them be truly solid and beautiful. But why? He's not able to put a value on this sensibility, which means that he can't sell his vision of manufacturing a U.S.-made bike to the bankers who might give him a loan. But even if he can't find the words or the price-point to make his case, Alan feels what it means to lose craftsmanship and pride in his work to a huge factory overseas.
The men behind Schwinn had tried to continue making bikes in the U.S. According to some, that was mistake No. 1. They hung on in Chicago till 1983…Do you know how hard it was to hold out even that long? To try to make bicycles, very complicated and labor-intensive machines, on the West Side of Chicago, in a hundred-year-old factory, until 1983? (VI.68.51)
Alan tries to work through just what exactly went wrong in both his own professional life and in the manufacturing life of the U.S. He's also trying hard to figure out where to place the blame for economic failure in his country—mostly because so many people are eager to blame him for his role in the offshoring of American manufacturing jobs to developing countries.
But the truth is more complex than that. Alan knows that he was just a cog in the machine, but his sense of guilt and fatigue make it hard for him to fully accept that.
But Alan dropped out of college to sell Fuller Brush products, and then sold bicycles, and did fine, extremely well for a while there, until he and others decided to have other people, ten thousand miles away, build the things they sold, and soon left himself with nothing to sell, and now he was in this conference room over-looking the harbor, and he was staring at this pinched-face Eric Ingvall, who owned him and who knew it. (IX.9.64-65)
Alan's participation in movement of manufacturing jobs out of the U.S. has landed him at a professional dead end. The building and selling of bicycles is not only far away; it's streamlined and technologically driven. There's no need for so much person-to-person schmoozing when everything can be settled impersonally and quickly. Alan can no longer support himself on his old skill set, and he seems too devastated to get a new one. His personal independence is now hostage to the whims of jerks like Ingvall.
"They're making actual things over there, and we're making websites and holograms. Every day our people are making their websites and holograms, while sitting in chairs made in China, driving over your bridges made in China." (XII.69.87)
Ron, Alan's dad, has no interest in making his son feel better about the state of things in the world. In fact, he's really into torturing Alan for his part in the shift away from manufacturing physical goods in the U.S. It's a theme that many Americans have taken up in the last few years: what good are we if we can't make any of the things that we actually use everyday?
Now, though, he had nothing to teach these people. They could set up a hologram in a tent in the desert, while he'd arrived three hours late and wouldn't know where to plug the thing in. (XVII.31.130)
Remember all those "out-of-body" experiences that Alan has while he's in the desert? He feels like he's stepping outside himself and wondering just who he has become. It happens partly because Alan no longer has a place in the world that's evolving at breakneck pace around him. He's basically a Fuller Brush salesman in a Silicon Valley world. Alan feels his irrelevance pretty hard when he tries to figure out exactly what he brings to this team of young, technologically hip people from Reliant.
[…] the Chinese glass maker was using a PPG patent. PPG had developed the glass, applied for and gotten a patent, and shortly before bidding began, they licensed the patent to firms around the world. And one of those firms was Sanxin Façade, based on the South China Sea. And Sanxin Façade, it turned out, would be the firm building the glass in Freedom Tower. (XVII.74.135)
Alan's friend Terry has a good, hard cry about losing a major (and emotionally significant) contract to provide the glass for the new Freedom Tower in New York City. But while PPG is boo-hooing over the Chinese taking away American jobs, Eggers adds this tidbit: it's a catastrophe of PPG's doing.
Perhaps they felt that the U.S. government would never choose a Chinese firm over an American one for such a significant project, so they felt safe licensing out their patent on the glass. Or perhaps greed got the better of them? Either way, Terry and his company become another example of how the globalization of the economy isn't a blessing to everyone.
They'd never heard of anything like it. Some of the bank people were so young they'd never seen a business proposal suggesting manufacturing things in the state of Massachusetts. They thought they'd unearthed some ancient shaman, full of clues to a forgotten world. (XVIII.15.142-143)
By the time Alan tries to get a loan for his bike start-up, the tide of time has washed away the memory of manufacturing culture. Long story short? Those kiddos at the bank practically laugh him and his ideas out the door. Alan finds himself in that space of time between enthusiasm for mass manufacturing and a grassroots movement to restore American craftsmanship to its rightful place. It means that there's nothing Alan can do to realize his goals.
The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart all human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making. Most people did not want to make decisions. And too many of the people who could make decisions had decided to cede them to machines. (XVIII.49.146)
If this sounds like something right out of Blade Runner or Brave New World, it means you've been paying attention in Dystopian Lit 101.
Except this is Alan's reality. He feels like he's awakened to a world in which human beings—human contact, human skill and ingenuity—are now totally obsolete. Our love affair with technology, Eggers seems to say, is taking away all the things that make us uniquely human.
Making the prototype in the U.S. had been catastrophically expensive, but they'd found a supplier in Korea who could build the lenses to their specs, at about a fifth of the cost in America, even cheaper if they shopped it out to a Chinese factory. (XXIV.96.214)
We don't know it yet, but this little economics lesson is going to become an important factor in Reliant's failure in Saudi Arabia. While Alan seems to be oblivious to the possibility that the Chinese could horn in on Reliant's hologram technology, he's kinda been warned by previous experience. His friend Terry experienced firsthand how it was to lose a major manufacturing bid to the Chinese because his company licensed foreign interests to use their technology. Lessons, it seems, are hard to learn.