It’s complicated

I was enthralled with the radio two Friday nights ago as first Marketplace and then This American Life recounted how monologist Mike Daisey seems to have portrayed many of the ideas in his piece The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as facts.  Do I remember correctly that the hourly NPR headlines even had the retraction as a news item?

To make a long story short, go here.  But really, I think you should listen to both radio pieces.  The Marketplace story is about 7-minutes and has reporters pointing out inconsistencies with the story as presented, and relating their own experiences on the ground–none of which contradict anything Daisey claims happens in factories in China. I would tell you to listen to the original This American Life episode, but it’s been not just retracted, but pulled down.

Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

L and I listened to the whole piece when it first aired in January.  This is what I remember from the first listening:  wow–he found a crappy factory.  I didn’t pay attention to city names.  I didn’t pay attention to how long he spent researching, and now I can’t go back and listen to the original, because it’s been pulled down.  But what is now apparent is the whole stage show is based on a 6 day trip to China–that alone seems absurd in hindsight.

The Marketplace piece made it seem like all the English-speaking reporters in China listened to the story and picked up on the inconsistencies immediately.  But he’s been doing this stage show for more than a year–you couldn’t have called bullshit earlier Shanghai Correspondents Club?

So the radio piece we listened to in January was a, …, what?  A fabrication?  An exaggeration?  The product of someone making up what he couldn’t find?

Two aspects of this whole affair make me want to comment.  First: I wasn’t even sure that TAL is supposed to be a credible source of information, but I guess that’s how I’ve been treating it.  In retrospect, I always thought that it was clear when it is fiction, and it is clear when people are storytelling.  Personal narratives are identified as such.  But this piece– my memory is that I listened to it as news.  I assumed it was real.  But Daisey makes a good point throughout the retraction interview:  he’s doing theater.  He’s storytelling.  ‘Ripped from the headlines.’  Both Marketplace and TAL stressed that they are not disputing that these things happen in Chinese factories (and in all fairness, Apple Computer Corporation readily admits to a lot of them).  The types of things that Daisey described happen.  But in the end, Daisey has little or no first-hand experience with these matters.

Second:  Does this mean that I have to start second guessing what is storytelling and what is news?  What separates a Teri Gross interview from a David Sedaris essay?  Did David really say all those things when he was a Macy’s elf?  Did he actually work at Macy’s or was that just a funny bit that he wrote?  L says:  “Don’t all Americans know that they need to watch all their media as if it’s fiction?”  Unfortunately honey, they don’t.

Bit I do suppose all news is this way.  Recently, I’ve been realizing that I sometimes have simultaneous and opposite intellectual and emotional responses to things I read.  It’s about what frame I choose to put around a topic.  At the end of the day, a huge portion of our electronic consumer goods come from China.  We get access to amazing gadgets that we couldn’t possibly afford if they were built in unionized American factories paying living wages in big cities, sourced with all-American parts.  In return, the average Chinese factory worker gets an increased standard of living.  Every single Chinese person I’ve met says that, generally speaking, everyone is better off now than they were 30 years ago.  Yes, people fall out of the labor market.  People are abused and left behind.  There are a whole host of negative social and environmental consequences to China’s rapid development.  But generally:  it’s an improvement.  There’s no mass starvation.  Most people have access to rudimentary health care.  A lot of people have access to pretty good health care.  College enrollment is growing rapidly.  Just about every single person who wants a cellphone has a cellphone.

Now, I’m not a China apologist.  What I know about China after looking at it closely for the past seven years is that it is too complex for anyone to ever completely understand.  Like the rest of life, it is filled with contradictions.  My friend Hiromi, who sort of got stuck in China after the Fukushima nuclear accident, says “it’s tricky, crazy, dirty!”  But every large institution has a dark underbelly –when you go looking for it.

I’m also not apologizing for Apple.  I’m a bit of a fanboy.  The first iPad I handled was in China.  I was trying to get a point across about good design and kept referring to Apple.  One of my (elite, urban) students pull her iPad out and I was able to sort of pantomime my point–I had heard about the great feel of selecting icons and swiping (Apple spent a lot of money on the physics of the swiping).  But no matter how good the design of  iOS is, every large institution has a corrupt underbelly–when you go looking for it.

One of the things that Daisey says that is most powerful does stand true.  Despite all of the automation, most of our gadgets are ultimately made by hand.  Most of them are made in Asia, by people who live in conditions that a lot of Americans would not tolerate.  But a lot of Americans live and work in conditions that a lot of us wouldn’t tolerate.  TAL says that almost every factory in China has conditions that NO American worker would tolerate. Daisey went on and on about explosion hazards.  But didn’t I hear something about mine owners turning a blind eye to disabled safety monitoring devices in a West Virginia coal mine a couple years ago?  Where’s the one-man show about that?  Industrial accidents happen everywhere there is a financial advantage to cutting corners.  That means they happen everywhere.

A couple weeks on, and I’m still thinking and talking about this.  I’m still not even sure how much of the retraction I believe:  Kathy, the translator, seemed to directly say “no” quite a bit.  That’s very unusual for a Chinese person.  She also says she never sees guns.  But every city has military bases and government buildings guarded by soldiers with rifles.  And armored car guards carry weapons as well.  Does she mean to say that she has never noticed these armed guards?

Becky Worley on TWIT says:  “when you misrepresent the facts, you make it seem like the facts aren’t strong enough on their own.  And they are.”  But now the whole situation is so muddy that most people aren’t going to have the patience to have a serious conversation about how Chinese factories work.  One of the topics that should be talked about is that one major complaint of Foxconn employees is the lack of enough overtime.

One thought on “It’s complicated

  1. I knew nothing of the TAL affair until, via facebook, a friend of mine liked your blogpost and so I thought I’d read it. I listened to the original Daisey episode of TAL. And the question that never seemed to get raised, and the one that I don’t think you raised at all, is this: People work in these factories, maybe even children, as an alternative to what?

    Perhaps your better understanding of China can help answer this question. Why do so many workers work in these factories? From my reading (*), it’s because the working conditions in those factories – as bad as they may be compared to working conditions for the average American – are much better than for the average Chinese.

    Put another way, is it possible, that these factories in China actually improve the average working conditions for Chinese? If you regulate them out of existence are you really helping the Chinese by returning them to worse working conditions? If sweatshops are required stops on the path between subsistence living and an American style workforce, then shouldn’t we be happy that progress has been made?

    It’s a reasonable question to ask whether or not sweatshops can be bypassed. But so far as I’m aware, there’s no example of a modern economy that did it. Not even the U.S.

    (*) Consider this: http://www.econlib.org/library/Columns/y2008/Powellsweatshops.html.

Comments are closed.