Apple critic Mike Daisey made things up, but iPad manufacturer Foxconn still has a case to answer, says Peter Judge
The chief witness against Chinese manufacturer Foxconn has been exposed as a liar – and yet the case against the maker of iPads, iPhones and other gadgets continues to gather steam.
In real life, it is a bit more subtle than that. A radio show which said Apple’s gadgets (and others) are made in inhuman conditions has broadcast a retraction, because one of the main people on its exposé show turned out to be have made some things up.
But that man, Mike Daisey, stands by his message, saying what he did is art, not journalism.
Agony for whom?
Daisey is a big man, who came to fame in 2001, when his 21 Dog Years performance described what it was like working at Amazon during the dotcom boom.
With something of a reputation for lifting the lid on the dark human side of tech subjects, he was lauded as “doing to Apple what Michael Moore did to General Motors”, when his one-man performance The Agony And Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs described his attempt to get to the bottom of how Apple devices are made in the Schenzhen “special economic zone” in China.
In it, he told a story of how he posed as a US businessman to get access to the Foxconn factories and staff, encountering armed guards and under-age workers. The performance gathered steam for more than a year, before becoming a sensation when large parts of it aired on the International Public Radio show This American Life in January.
That show is still there in the radio programme’s archives, but so is a retraction, aired this week, after it emerged that large parts of Daisey’s story were just that – a story. A journalist thought that the story didn’t ring true, and tracked down Daisey’s interpreter who said a lot of it was made up.
A higher truth?
“I’m telling you that in my first two hours at my first day at that gate I met workers who were 14 years old…13 years old…12,” Daisey had said in his monologue and on the radio show. “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?”
Rob Schmidt tracked down Daisey’s interpreter Cathy Lee (Li Guifen) who said she and Daisey had not met underage workers. Nor had they met maimed workers or workers poisoned by hexane, an organic solvent, as Daisey described in his monologue and on various news shows during the year.
In the retraction show, Daisey is confronted with this, and squirms for fifteen minutes. But he is unrepentant because, he says, his show is artistic truth, not journalism.
On his blog, Daisey even sounds bitter about his treatment on the show: “I thought the dead air was a nice touch, and finishing the episode with audio pulled out of context from my performance was masterful. That’s Ira’s choice, and it’s his show. He’s a storyteller within the context of radio journalism, and I am a storyteller in the theatre.”
In a six-day visit, Daisey was never going to get the kind of experiences he tells about. But, he says, these things genuinely happen. In 2011, Apple’s own audits found that 91 under-age workers had been among those building its products in 2010. Three workers died last year in an explosion in an iPad factory. And the high level of suicide at FoxConn plants is well-attested, as was the suicide threat by 360 workers (building Xbox 360s) over the new year.
Return to denialism?
True or not, Daisey’s show got results, with Apple inspecting FoxConn and many people experiencing a flutter of conscience about the way their devices are made. It is early to tell, but these little shifts could mark the start of some sort of real change.
“There is nothing in this controversy that contests the facts in my work about the nature of Chinese manufacturing. Nothing,” says Daisey. “If people want to use me as an excuse to return to denialism about the state of our manufacturing, about the shape of our world, they are doing that to themselves.”
I wouldn’t argue with that. But what about the way Daisey dumped on tech journalists, calling them cowards for failing to expose the corporations they love? In the Daisey backlash, those journalists can turn round and say their failure is simply an insistence on doing their job right.
Straddling the worlds of art and journalism, Daisey’s been set up as the “tech world’s dot-conscience” in the words of Wall Street Journal blogger Jeff Yang.
Conscience needs to be based on truth, and truth is not identical with “facts”. The case against manufacturing conditions in Foxconn remains a very strong and serious one. If that case has been made with claims that are not factual, it is damaged, but not destroyed.