Outside the Apple Factory Looking In

How do we think things that are both familiar and essentially unknowable? The mobile phone is a device that stands at the nexus of productive forces spanning thousands of lives and dozens of countries. At the same time, this massive assemblage lies dormant in its placement as the familiar functionary of Western daily life. A thing like an iPhone is a networked object. Like scores of communicative technologies before it, it produces (even as it is produced by) a global network of assemblages. The carefully polished glass and impeccably molded plastic are the congealed essence of a process of production that seems to leverage the effort of an entire global community.

Investigating such a composition is, at best, difficult and, at worst, impossible. And one of the investigations that has been particularly resonant has been conducted not by a journalist or a researcher, but by a performer. In one of the many stories to cover Mike Daisey’s work on The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs we begin, as Daisey himself does, from the position of a consumer. When This American Life’s host Ira Glass asks the iPhone’s Siri where [she] was made, the algorithm responds: “I, Siri, was designed by Apple in California.” Yes, Glass says, but “where were you manufactured?” Siri’s response prompts the segment of the show that delves into that question and consequences behind it. “I’m not allowed to say,” she says…

In the The Agony and Ecstasy Daisey sifts through the composition of the consumer object we have come to know so well, beginning with a site unfamiliar in its particulars, but not in form. He does so in a way that evokes a rich, and sometimes fantastic, landscape.

And a few blocks down from the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, sits the Chungking Mansions.

The Chungking Mansions are a wretched hive of scum and villainy. They sit in the heart of Kowloon; they are nothing more and nothing less than a mall of inequities. Anything you want to get that you probably aren’t supposed to have you can find in the Chungking Mansions after midnight, and I am there, walking up and down the aisles.

It’s like globalism in action. It’s like a pirate-themed Benetton ad.

And in this booth on strands of fishing wire are hundreds and hundreds of cell phones—as though they’ve been caught by some fisherman—and in a sense they have, because the man in the booth is seated at a workbench, he has a phone in front of him with the back popped off, he has a soldering iron in one hand and a big magnifying glass over his left eye. When I walk in he looks at me and his eye looms at me enormously.

And I speak to him in the only international language I know: I say,

“iPhone?”

Copied from Daisey’s transcript of The Agony and Extasy of Steve Jobs.

Daisey has been performing his show since 2010. I say performing his show, because Daisey is an actor and a writer. He is not a journalist, an investigator, or a researcher. I saw his show when it played at the Public Theater, and was impressed by the narrative. His accounts are rich and evocative. In the confines of the theater—absent sources, citations, footnotes, and facts—the story comes alive. It does so in spite of, rather than because of, the glaring inaccuracies and elaborations that unfold. {1}

I have no interest in getting into the breakdown of what Daisey truly experienced when he went to China. Much of Daisey’s show has been refuted (and retracted), in whole or in part. The fact is, most of what Daisey said is true, but only when the facts have been scraped to the bone. Once stripped of all of their fatty context these facts become more mobile, and more easily transplanted into different parts of the narrative. Take for instance Daisey’s account of n-hexane poisoned workers (they weren’t Foxconn workers, and it didn’t happen in Shenzhen, but these are only details).

There is a missed opportunity in these half-truths. I don’t think when Daisey put together this monologue he was interested in reporting facts. I think he was interested in telling a story. A powerful story, a possibly compelling story, but just that—a story. The problem for Daisey came when that story transitioned to a different arena. When Daisey began giving interviews, writing op-ed pieces, and letting his monologue be excerpted on the radio he had a choice to make. He could have narrowed the account to include those things which were factually accurate, or he could have simply identified his work as something other than this kind of investigation: fiction, a holistic presentation drawn from personal and reported experiences, an elaboration of real events, etc. This would not even have been particularly damaging. It would have joined a long list of works that successfully blended narrative devices with real accounts of labor conditions in order to advance the cause.{2}

Of all the questions surrounding this work, the most pressing is why people wanted to believe it in the first place. Did we really ever believe this? In the now retracted This American Life show Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory Ira Glass himself seems to set the stage for a story, not a report:

A couple weeks ago I saw this one-man show where this guy did something on stage I thought was really kind of amazing. He took this fact that we all already know, right, this fact that our stuff is made overseas in maybe not the greatest working conditions, and he made the audience actually feel something about that fact. Which is really quite a trick. You really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.

And certainly the theatricality of Daisey’s performance, the interpretative nature of it, seems to be borne out by his release of it as a script for performance. It is hard to imagine a piece of investigative journalism being presented through another person’s voice, someone who was not the investigator, at their urging. This seems to be the work of a writer, a performer, a story teller. That’s part of what I imagined it to be.

One of the most unfortunate outcomes of this will be that the truth gets lost. In exposing his monologue in this way Daisey has done a disservice to those of us who are concerned about these issues. These are issues which are real, which do happen, and which are already extremely difficult to investigate and unravel. And Daisey does record real insights. Some of things he talks about don’t get enough attention. These are not the fabricated details of a maimed worker’s patronizing encounter with the “magic” of the iPad he has never seen. The most interesting insights are about the position of Daisey’s audience illuminated through Daisey’s own pseudo-fictitious experience. Daisey’s admission that his idea of manufacturing has been cut and pasted from news reports of Japanese automative plants is a cutting observation about the mental imaginaries surrounding the current state of manufacture:

When I leave the factories I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me. I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out; the way I see everything is starting to change.

I keep thinking, how often do we talk about how we wish more things were handmade?

Oh, we talk about that all the time, don’t we?

“I wish it was like the old days, I wish things had that human touch.”

But that’s not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world. Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair, one, after another, after another.

Everything is handmade. If you have the eyes to see it.

The idea that these devices are handmade—absent from the endless procession of Japanese robots producing the products of our movies or the assembly lines of automated taffy production that occupy the television screens—isn’t exactly shocking. It’s surprising, but it is the kind of surprise that we feel when we discover something that we already should have known. It feels like it is just under the surface of our brain. Daisey is remarkably good at generating these kinds of insights, and it is this—more so than the presentation of reported “facts”—that can resonate with audiences. The moment when, “oh yes, I think that way too…” There is recognition rather than difference.

But there are other reasons for wanting to believe Daisey’s account. In thinking through how we investigate these problems, it is difficult to not contrast Daisey’s approach with those of actual reporters. In almost every case these stories go the same way. A reporter is given (often unprecedented) access to the factories, the workers, and a spokesperson for the company. They go on tours of facilities. Their arrivals are well known and expected. Sometimes these investigations are incredibly insightful, sometimes they seem shallow. In each case, they seem fundamentally disconnected from the daily imagination of a Western consumer. How might we, given such a consumptive position, approach the investigation for ourselves? These reports, from journalists and other investigators, produce facts, they categorize and catalog the scope of problems, they identify the perspectives of all the actors involved. They don’t produce stories of connection, or stories through which one can position themselves. I think Daisey’s success has a lot to do with the imaginative methodology of Daisey’s supposed investigation:

And at this plant, they make all kinds of things, including MacBook Pros and iPhones and iPads, and so my plan is to take this taxi to the main gates, and then I’m going to get out of the taxi with my translator, and then my plan is to stand at the main gates and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.

And when I tell journalists in Hong Kong about this plan, they say, “That’s…different. That’s not really how we usually do things in China…ah…that’s really a bad idea—”

But I don’t know what the fuck else to do. I have been trying to do things “the right way,” I can’t get anywhere. I’ve been working with a fixer for the BBC—all the doors are closed. And you reach a certain point when you realize you may need to obey your natural inclinations.

This kind of heroic intervention seems powerful. Real, or imagined, it resonates with consumer audiences because they can identify with Daisey’s position. What can they do to try to understand this problem? Denied the privileged position of the reporter, the all-access pass generously offered by a fearful Foxconn, we must look for what Daisey offers. “I can’t do what they do on Nightline, but… I could go there. I could stand outside the factory gates. I could ask people what is going on.” I suspect that this kind of resonance will carry Daisey through the controversy he has created. To some extent all of us, concerned consumer or investigative reporter, are only able to stand outside the factory gates. To claim a more privileged position that that of the outsider seems disingenuous. Daisey’s act of imagination seems to be the frustrated workings of a consumer who can’t really understand, or hope to understand, how these things have been made—and at what cost.

{1}: Much of Daisey’s show collapses numerous factual elements into a singular personal account. In some cases these are small (but significant) elaborations. In other cases they draw unrelated accounts into Daisey’s singular narrative. The most egregious offenses are those which seem designed to offer nothing more than powerful pulls to the heartstrings of sympathetic viewers unfamiliar with the facts on the ground. The story leading to Daisey’s retraction came from Rob Schmitz, normally a reporter for Marketplace, doing some independent fact checking on This American Life’s Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. There are some stories that cover the incident in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and the New York Times. Some additional items are here.

{2}: Certainly the early legacy of muck-raking journalists often overflowed into fictional accounts of events, new narrative forms, and unique media productions. One might draw further comparisons to gonzo journalists (a label which Daisey has occasionally identified with himself).