I was tired of running all around and today I had a full afternoon and evening of events to try and attend — heck, it's Sunday and I don't feel like leaving the house. Alas, I did go to just one thing: I headed to The Multi-Use Community Cultural Center (MuCCC) (142 Atlantic Ave.) for a reading of The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. I really didn't have much background (despite curating the events calendar on this site, I don't actually read much into descriptions) and I only recalled a passing interest in attending.
It is a monologue written by Mike Daisey and performed/read by Spencer T. Christiano which is a first-person account of how a fan of technology (and especially products of Apple) became disillusioned by visiting a factory in China. Christiano did a fantastic job voicing Daisey, who interweaves three tales: one is his own, personal relationship with technology, the second is the story of Apple, and the third is the story of his visit to Shenzhen, China. I found his style fantastically conversational and personal. The way he writes about technology demonstrates a deep understanding, and he genuinely seems like an eyes-wide-open kind of guy who is willing to lay any judgmental views right in the open.
But you don't have to take my word for it: you can go to his site and download the whole monologue as a PDF and read it for yourself (it's licensed with his unique open-source-like agreement).
I was drawn in to the story quickly. I grok the lust for technology, and his description of that experience fits with my own (for an example, one of the things he loved about his first computer — an Apple IIc — was that the keyboard was in Garamond; if that makes no sense to you, then you might not fully appreciate his geekery.) I have a fairly good understanding of the origins of Apple, and Daisey's details fully corroborated my own. And when he began describing the "retail" side of Shenzen, it fit with what I had heard, such as when SparkFun visited there (although I far more appreciate his description, "Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it's everything they promised us the future would be.")
So when he started talking about what the "manufacturing" side of Shenzen was like, I could only assume it was just as accurate. I realize it's a logical fallacy — a twist on the "ad hominem" fallacy — where I believe a fact to be true solely because I found other facts true.
He then outlined the conditions in the factories which were different from, and, by my gauge, worse than what I had envisioned. I had an impression of workers on an assembly-line putting together and testing electronics.
But I didn't expect it to be in gigantic rooms where absolute silence is enforced. I didn't expect such a lack of machinery (it's cheaper to pay a Chinese worker to install a screw than to make a machine to do it, presumably until some astonishingly large scale.) I didn't expect there to be suicide nets on the outside of the building. I didn't expect regular working hours to be so extreme (although the government-approved union-busting and blacklisting would naturally make that so). I certainly didn't expect these factories to employ the "best and the brightest" — a college education in China gets you a job assembling iPhones.
But then, like I say, you can read all about this yourself in a far more engaging and entertaining form.
So stepping out of the writing, and stepping out of the monologue and the performance, there's an interesting twist to the story. NPR radio show This American Life had Daisey perform an abbreviated form of the monologue for the January 6, 2012 show. But then they did something unprecedented: on their March 16, 2012 show, they retracted the episode, claiming that Daisey lied.
Now this is unique, first because it's the first time This American Life actually retracted an episode. But more important, it's not a retraction because the facts of the account are false, it's because they didn't happen to Daisey personally as he had claimed. According to the after-performance discussion with Spencer T. Christiano, producer John W. Borek, and director Kelly Webster, Daisey does not dispute the fabrications and says it is a work of theater, not journalism. On the Star Wars Modern blog titled What Mike Daisey Did Wasn't Fair – It Was Right., John Powers puts it better than I can: "when did Ira Glass graduate from being a talk radio Casey Kasem to NPR's Dan Rather?"
I'll briefly mention that there's a flurry of activity about this. My take [I'd add, "as if you care", but you, dear reader, are indeed reading this, so I'll meta-self-referentially say it parenthetically] is that journalists like to believe the rules of journalism produce a work that is closest to reality. The truth is, no writing is remotely close to the truth. No account of any event — be it written, photographed, filmed, or recorded — has ever been an adequate substitute for reality. However, it is a new truth, just as this blog entry is a new essay that's about a new performance of a new monologue by Mike Daisey which is a new transcript based on new performances of Daisey which is a new account … umm … etcetera.
But what I think is so valuable about The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the way it paints a picture of the hierarchy that exists. A journalist could play by-the-book and quote a business person, and a worker, and a technology geek, and a Foxconn liaison, and Steve Jobs — and they could never manage to put it together to describe the chain of events. For instance, here's an attempt to explain the hierarchy I'm talking about:
- An evangelical Apple geek eagerly awaits the newest product from (although having never met the man)
- … Steve Jobs whose staff designs a new version of their latest product and sends a representative to Foxconn in Shenzen, China to meet (a group of strangers, both in relation and in culture)
- … the representatives at Foxconn and they all go to dinner and mingle and go to the shiny factory meeting room and discuss the product when the Apple representative asks to see the factory floor, so the Foxconn people make a call to (knowing they should show an idealized version)
- … the factory manager who sets up (not wanting to lose work and get fired)
- … a mock factory — well, a real factory floor with real products, but with the child labor replaced by their oldest workers who (desperate for employment)
- … go along with the charade and work hard and say all the right things so the representative can report back about the great working conditions (all the while wondering why American workers can't be so happy for work).
So go back in that list and find the bad guy — find the person who caused the dangerous working conditions, or the child labor. This is where journalism falls down: there is no person who is at fault.
Those parenthetical phrases are key: they describe the gaps that are filled in by the systems we have. Ergo, it is the system itself that is the problem. The system rewards people for making small lies to preserve its own profitability and we humans have created this new life form.
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