Yesterday I happened to have the radio on, and caught a show that blew my socks off, a recording of Mike Daisey’s stage performance about a trip he took to China. It’s an excerpt from his one-man play, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” A self-proclaimed “worshipper in the cult of Mac,” when Daisey gleefully opened up his newest iPhone, he found four photos on it – photos taken in the factory, as a test of the camera. He began to be haunted by these images. It occurred to him that he’d never once given a thought about how his beloved gadgets came into being. So bless his heart, he went to find out.
This is one of the best whole-systems pieces I’ve ever heard. I doubt it would be possible to listen to it and not come away with a deeply expanded awareness of the need to consider the life-cycle of all of our things.
Mike Daisey did fabulous journalism, to begin with; through his detailed, evocative imagery, the listener really feels herself to be there with him, seeing and hearing what he is experiencing. When he interviews a worker whose hands were ruined by the minute repetitive work of creating iPads and then realizes that this man has never actually seen one completed, let alone one powered up and working, I was glued to the radio. The man thought Daisey’s iPad was like magic.
And it is, in a way. I’m incredibly grateful to our technology, from radios on, for allowing me to hear Daisey’s performance done thousands of miles away, and allowing you to read my words about it now.
Daisey’s honesty about the dilemmas this growing awareness poses in his life is refreshing, and it is an issue we all face, whether we think about it or not. If you are reading this on a personal computer, you are complicit, as am I. How best to deal with this reality? On a personal level, should we give our gadgets up and try to live a materially simpler life? Or is the commerce actually helping the people there, as many claim? On a societal level, does the problem simply lie with unscrupulous companies in Shenzhen (a former fishing village, now manufacturing central) trying to make the biggest bucks in the fastest time; shades of the Gold Rush in the American West; boom and bust, and damn the consequences? If so, could it be fixable through stronger governmental oversight of the tech industry and overseas manufacturing? Or is the problem actually rooted more deeply in the west’s rampant overconsumption; in the corporate capitalist industrial growth model itself? All of the above?
I intend to give Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory to the students in my Ecopsychology in Context course at Naropa this semester as part of their required “reading.” It’s that good. Be sure to listen to the commentary afterward, too. It’s much dryer, but contains important follow-up journalism regarding Apple’s response that will make you think even more deeply about the issue.
So what can we do? These issues are complex; to begin with, please don’t jump to immediate conclusions about whom to blame. Socioenvironmental issues like this, involving toxins, survival, workers’ rights, economic growth, and desire, are systemic problems. And when we’re talking widespread, multi-faceted processes like this, it’s often mistaken and shallow thinking to point to one minute element that contributes to it. In fact, shifting one little element in a system more often than not leads to unforeseen, unintended consequences that we then have to add to the pile of problems. (Illustrating that will be another long story.)
A middle-ground response for the individual could be to just keep the gadget you have for as long as you can before replacing it. This would help on both ends of its life, the manufacturing end and the discarding end. How about we re-define the “coolness” factor to include long-term sustainability for both planet and people?
You can hear the piece on NPR’s This American Life website (after 7 pm Sun 1/8/12). It’s episode #454. There’s a short promo too, so you can see if you’re interested.
Please let me know what you think about these things here in the Comments section!
Update 1/16/12: Apple has responded with a new page on their website, Supplier Responsibility at Apple.
Update 3/3/13 (rather late, but I just found out about this): NPR has retracted the story since discovering that some of this powerful piece was, sadly, falsified by Mike Daisey.
I apologize for unintentionally passing on false information. According to my keen-eyed student, Jason Butler, who brought my attention to this, it is to this date the only story that This American Life has ever retracted.
Although now proven to be at least partially fictional, it is still a powerful meditation on some of the systemic effects of global capitalism. To learn more about that, I suggest John Ryan and Alan Thein Durning’s excellent short book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things, and the subsequent (easily Googleable) film along the same lines, The Story of Stuff.