My girlfriend bought us tickets to watch Mike Daisey's “The Agony and Ectasy Of Steve Jobs” at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. I was quite excited to see it because for once I will get to form an opinion on something from seeing it in the flesh, rather than the usual 2nd-hand self-educating via Twitter and the web.
For those not in the know, this is a one-man monologue that (briefly) explores the origins of Apple & Steve Jobs but more prominently focuses on the working conditions and ages of the Chinese factory workers who put together our beloved devices. Mike Daisey was busted not so long ago for fabricating a few of the more dramatic claims he makes, which he then pulled from the script without so much as an apology (the truth seemed to get in the way of a good story, as far as I can tell – here's his statement).
The story basically goes like this: Steve Jobs created Apple, was a ruthless business man and ignored the fact that his company used child labour in Chinese factories. The rest of the content is delivered as an energetic thespian performance designed more to entertain and shock the audience than raise awareness of the actual issues, and it uses Apple as an easy target.
Skipping the details
The first thing I noticed during the performance was how many details were being skipped and manipulated in aid of a good story. First, he describes a story of how Jobs conned his Apple co-founder Wozniak out of a bonus offered by their then-employer Atari. As I remember it from the book, this was not how it happened. Then there is the story of the nets that surround the tops of the factories, to prevent the deaths of workers jumping from the rooftops. I've read about these before, but the context is usually that the workers commit suicide to claim the life insurance benefits for their families which pay out far more than they could hope to achieve in wages. Who knows the full story, but without disclosing contextual facts such as these, it just reminds me that Daisey has an agenda.
The plight of these factory workers, if as described, is truly sad and the Western world has a lot of explaining to do. As the show puts it, there is no-one in the manufacture-to-consumer life cycle who cares enough to do anything about it, and that is a sad reflection of our desire to have our cake and eat it; that is, to live in the style to which we have become accustomed, with no thought to how it is achieved.
However, this issue is not uniquely caused by Apple. As the show even mentions, 50% of our electronics are made by the factory in question (Foxconn), but there is only one mention of a company other than Apple, and that is Samsung which is mentioned only once in passing. So, why is Daisey singling out Apple? The obvious answer that springs to mind is that they are an easy target; one the largest electronics manufactures but also one that prides itself in the design process and the finesse of its products. The show points out that how a product is created cannot be ignored, especially by a company that prides itself on its image of the creator of beautiful things.
This leads me to my other question:
What is the message?
I still don't understand the purpose of this show. Despite touching on various issues such as human rights, it falls short of actually having a point? The only summary given at the end was along the lines of “well now you know how your devices are made, you should feel weird using them”. What about recommending a way to make a change? How can we help these workers? What are the human rights issues at stake? Are there any charities involved that we can donate to? What steps are Apple taking to address this? What are the steps MIKE DAISEY is taking now he knows this. None of these questions were even touched upon, and I worry about how tasteful it is that despite gathering all this information that apparently no-one else was brave enough to do, all Daisey does is to dramatise it for his own financial gain.
What is worse is that Apple are one of the few, if only, companies to publicly state their corporate responsibility manifesto and to publicly conduct reviews of its factories in an effort to address the problem. Daisey conveniently completely ignores this fact. Shouldn't he be picking on companies that don't even discuss this issue at all, rather than the one company that is actually doing something about it?
By not addressing any of the core questions that immediately follow any discussion of the topics in this show, Daisey instantly creates an impression of self-serving gratification. It is as if all he is saying is how clever he was to infiltrate these factories and how he's done such an amazing job of bringing this to our attention. Except he hasn't – the only attention he seems to be raising is in his show, which you have to pay money to see. I don't see him campaigning for these workers' rights, I just see him licensing out his show to others who can perform it at will. Does he donate any of the proceeds to charities or other such entities involved in addressing these issues?
And so I am left with mixed feelings. I appreciate the facts – that these workers lives are sub-standard and that the devices we have come to rely on are probably made unethically. But I also leave with little respect for Daisey, who I feel is simply making money out of sensationalising the issue (as if the original lies he got caught for weren't bad enough). In spite of what he'll have you believe, he doesn't seem to care about the workers any more than the rest of us, but at least we don't go on preaching about how terrible it is and charging people to listen.