It can be a peculiar and rather disquieting sensation to type on a laptop these days. As a personal computing device that is more or less portable, a laptop computer becomes an extension of the human being who hauls it about and operates it. The capabilities of the machine are grafted onto the hardware of the user, even as its constant physical presence renders it almost an appendage. How much truer this becomes in the age of the smart phone, which is more capable, more portable, and ever more affixed to the body that uses it.
As monologist Mike Daisey tells it, “We are cyborgs already.”
But however attached we become to our devices, however much we come to employ them as extensions of our very selves, our hands are not the only ones that have handled our devices. They have been assembled, tested, passed about by other hands as well – often by little hands, tired hands, mangled hands. While the sleek packaging of a new iPad or MacBook might suggest a divine or immaculate provenance, these and virtually all other electronic devices have been created by human hands.
Daisey, an author and performer with an eclectic body of work on politics, history, and consumerism, recently completed a four-week series of shows at Washington, DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theater. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a two-hour monologue, traces Apple’s journey from a two-man pirate enterprise to one of the largest, most secretive tech companies in the world. Through careful expositions and humorous outbursts, Daisey chronicles some three decades of the company’s breakthroughs, blunders, tribulations, and triumphs, portraying the rapt attention and comically emotional investment of a true believer and often a fervent critic– portraying, in effect, himself. Likening Apple to an abusive spouse, he equates its followers – who endure one ill-advised product line after another only to embrace the company when it redeems itself with something brilliant – to battered wives. But Daisey discovers a fascination with those members of the Apple family who are, if one can believe it, more aggrieved than its consumers.
Hands across the Pacific
Daisey’s journey begins when an iPhone user discovers photographs on his new phone, apparently left over from factory tests. Daisey’s interest is piqued. He recounts his amazement that actual human beings built the devices on which he and so many other people rely. Dispensing with whatever illusions he had about Honda-style robots quickly and meticulously assembling our electronic devices, Daisey determines that hands remain far cheaper than machines in countries like China. Contrary to the nostalgia of Western consumers about the demise of “hand-made” products, Daisey asserts that more products are made by hand now than at any other point in history.
Maybe this is old news to more astute observers of manufacturing and global capitalism. But to apprehend a fact and to confront it are two different matters. Mike Daisey chooses the latter.
Pretending to be an American investor, Daisey actually travels to China – more specifically, to the sprawling “Special Economic Zone” of Shenzhen. As late as 1970, Shenzhen was a small fishing village home to no more than perhaps a few hundred residents. In 1979, Chinese authorities designated the city a “Special Economic Zone,” which Daisey characterizes as a space in which foreign corporations can treat their workers and their environs however they see fit – whatever it takes to deliver a “modern China.”
Today Shenzhen is a city of some 9 million people and the largest manufacturing base in the world. Decked out with towering advertising displays and imposing concrete industrial complexes, Shenzhen looks, in Daisey’s colorful characterization, “like Blade Runner threw up on itself.”
Shenzhen is also home to the sprawling Foxconn complex, which employs over 400,000 workers who reportedly make half of all the electronic devices in the world. Foxconn’s clients include, among others, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and, of course, Apple. The complex made news last year for a disturbing spate of worker suicides.
Carrying on his charade as an American investor — complete with humorous asides about his obviously fake business cards and his visceral dislike for PowerPoint presentations — Daisey tours the plant, its cafeterias, and its dormitories. He recounts seeing thousands upon thousands of employees standing and working in utter silence for 12 or more hours at a time, often weary from back pain, sometimes purposefully dropping an item only for the momentary relief of bending over to pick it up despite the inevitable reprimand from the ubiquitous supervisors. He describes dormitories with stacks of beds sometimes a dozen bunks high, all under the watchful gaze of conspicuously placed security cameras.
Carrying on interviews outside the plant beneath newly installed suicide nets (Foxconn’s version of “corporate responsibility,” he says), Daisey speaks with dozens of employees who are suddenly eager to share their stories – an oddly audacious undertaking given prior reports of a photographer being beaten outside the compound. One employee mangled his hand in a factory accident and was fired instead of compensated. Several workers speak of an employee who died after working a 32-hour shift). And one woman says that she was fired and blacklisted after reporting unpaid overtime to the local labor board. Many of the workers are children – 11, 12, 13 years old. “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?” Daisey wonders.
Having skillfully employed humor to gain the attention and sympathy of his audience, Daisey shares his stories of these workers in an utterly silent theater filled only minutes before with laughter. It is at this moment that his theatrical medium seems a most appropriate forum for this kind of gonzo journalism. Such stories may numb an audience in the stale medium of print or the stoic, self-serious confines of a lecture hall. But in a space where people have listened and laughed together, they convey an impact often lost on other modes of activism.
Daisey’s account of modern Shenzhen – a sprawling, overgrown, polluted, and altogether scary place –neatly encapsulates the scale of the vices of global capitalism. Standing before Shenzhen, a consumer appears but a speck, overshadowed by the concrete edifices of corporate excess backed by state power.
Blood on the Trackpads
Lest he leave his audience feeling helpless – he promises them, after all, that they will return to their MacBooks and “see the blood bubbling up through the keyboard!” – Daisey goes on to insist that consumers have a tremendous amount of power to force changes in the companies they patronize. He reminds us that, if not for the demands of consumers, no corporation would ever change. Indeed, he assures us that companies like Apple have begun to commit themselves to more environmentally friendly practices, for example, solely because of consumer pressure. What could happen if consumers demand that the workers who make their products be treated like human beings?
It is an uncomfortable thing to return to our devices after such a performance. The laptop on which I’ve written this piece, bubbling blood and all, is no exception. But if nothing else, especially considering the utter dearth of fair-trade electronics, these devices represent our “buy-in,” the platforms on which we must stand to demand more humane practices from the corporations we enrich. One hopes this is not mere self-delusion.
And perhaps we can take a pass on that new iPad.