Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Against Nostalgia

Mike Daisey is a storyteller and monologist, among other things. He's performed at some events put on by The Moth. He's good. This is what he had to say recently in the New York Times.
Apple’s rise to power in our time directly paralleled the transformation of global manufacturing. As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple...
Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers. 
This grew out of Daisey's work, and performances of, something called The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, his monologue/one-man show about his life and love of Apple, and the journey he took to China to meet with the workers there, and how it changed him. He is not unaware of the fact that other companies (Dell, HP, etc) also get there supplies in a similar, or worse, manner. He is aware, though, that like Nike was to the shoe industry, Apple is the brand that's most associated with the world's current manufactured bliss. If you're going to close the "sweatshops" of technology, they're the company you look at.

For myself, I've been reading Apple's supplier responsibility reports. In the coming days, when the mood strikes, I will post some of what it says. Fascinating things about suicide nets, for example. Apple, if nothing else, is active in auditing its suppliers and seemingly quite transparent about their (so-far) failures to enact lasting change. I don't know of any other tech company publishing the number of underage workers in their factories.



  1. wow, this is good. i read the suicides story in wired a while back.. i don't suppose this guy wrote that? there is, usually, a limit to the amount of change that one person can do, and it is always just short of what people notice should have been possible for them to do. not saying that horrible labor practices are ok. we should be more aware of how our tech is made. but transparency and documentation of said practices, is, i believe, doing something a little differently.

  2. Don't know if it was the same guy. Probably not.

    And yes, I think--if nothing else--that documentation and transparency was thinking different. Perhaps, it's unfair for Daisey to say it wasn't (or to even mention it).

    That said, it's not like that documentation and transparency was--so far as I know--ever discussed publicly by Jobs or Apple (you know, in a hey everybody, look at what we're doing kind of way!).

    Still, it's worthwhile to point out these practices are going on, that they did go on while Jobs was around, and that, for whatever reason, it's up to us/someone else to push the agenda further--from documentation to some kind of reconfiguration.

    In the meantime, what Daisey said in another article--about buying second-hand items, holding out on updating every cycle--are small, but thoughtful things to do to reduce the amount of demand on the system. If enough people did that (which they won't) it might make a difference.