It seems that noted firebrand Mike Daisey’s story – the one about the crippled, underaged factory workers who unspooled tales of woe and torture at the hands of their evil Foxconn masters at the behest of Apple – was at least partially fabricated. He was outed as, at best, a bad journalist and at worst a fraud. To be clear, he’s a monologist and playwright and had no business telling this story (just as he really had no business telling Amazon’s story way back when) but he, like so many creatives, riffed on science and technology for popular effect and got both drastically wrong.
Daisey was a droning Woody Guthrie whose intentions were good but whose rigor was lacking. His efforts to expose the Great Sin of our technological age – that the items we use and consume must be made by unhappy hands – were noble and I believe he’s done some good. What he failed to grasp in his effort to dramatize the horrors of modern manufacturing was its absolute banality. There is no great demon forcing humans to work at his forge. There are no hellions bent on the destruction of the peon’s will at some dimly-lit workbench. There are simply young people working for older engineers in well-lit assembly lines. In an effort to save time and money, the engineers require their employees to work in a manner that streamlines both time and money and for their efforts they receive a small salary and housing.
Manufacturing isn’t frightening because it exploits the worker – all endeavors, in some way, exploit the worker. It’s frightening in its brutal and absolute efficiency at consuming resources, human effort, and intellect to cast a torrent of consumer goods a the endless open maw of the world consumer. We don’t need an new ethical iPhone. We need to make do with the one we have, at least for a year.
To feel schadenfreude at Daisey’s fall is wrong. I will instead remind you that most of what he said was, technically, true. And while his story may have been a fabrication, his mission to help the oppressed was a good one, and a true one. We can learn from his example, at least in terms of consuming less and reducing our endless neophilia. Over the next few years, Foxconn will change. The people working there will slowly spread out into the Chinese cities and countryside, replaced by increasingly adroit robots. The age of men and women building complex things dawned in the 1700s, reached its apex in the Industrial Revolution, and is now seeing its nadir. The small, quick hands of a factory worker will be replaced by small, quick pincers and the sun will set on the manual worker in Shenzhen and other points east. This is inevitable.
Until this change sweeps away all of Daisey’s concerns, we can adjust our expectations, reduce our consumption, and stop ascribing totemic powers to new technology. Or, more likely, we won’t. Either way, a million iPads will roll down a thousand assembly lines, five hundred tired eyes scanning the screens for the tiniest imperfections while the relentless juggernaut of our own desire ravages the planet and pulls us further from the sense of humanity that Daisey tried to mightily to impart on the impassive faces of the Asian manufacturing giants.
He failed the in the light of journalism, but he humanized a problem that we have been avoiding for too long. For that, at least, we can’t fault him.