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Many of us love our gadgets. However, as with many first-world consumption patterns, they don't come free of guilt. There are ongoing questions and challenges regarding the environmental impact of manufacturing computers and electronic gadgetry. And there are also concerns about the sheer amount of energy required to power these wonderful Intarwebz and all the geegaws connected to them. There's a reason big companies like to place datacenters near rivers (hint: hydroelectric power).
So, while we can all feel a smidge of anxiety knowing that every Google search we do and every email we send kinda' sorta' maybe sends a little puff of carbon dioxide into an atmosphere, that, in the immortal words of engineer Montgomery Scott CANNA TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS, CAP'n, another guilt-inducer is labor. Specifically, the labor practices used in the places that manufacture our pretty, pretty iPads.
Mike Daisey is an amazing monologuist, story teller, and solo performer. Last year I saw his show "The Last Cargo Cult" at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in D.C. and it was amazing. I have been remiss all these years in not seeing his earlier work. I also read the book he wrote about working at Amazon in the 90s called 21 Dog Years: A Cube Dweller's Tale. His most recent effort is a show called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." Here's a snippet of a review:
In this freewheeling theatrical essay, he doesn't just hold Apple CEO Steve Jobs' feet to the fire. He doesn't just question the morality of capitalism. He forces theatergoers to take a hard look at the glowing screens in their pockets and ask where they came from and at what cost.
Only a true believer, a man who fieldstrips his MacBook Pro down to its 43 components parts to unwind, could be this shocked and heartbroken to find that the gadgets he adores, those glossy pieces of electronic sculpture known as the iPad and the iPhone, might have been produced under brutal working conditions in China. Eager to investigate for himself, Daisey traveled to Shenzhen, a city of 14 million people crammed together under a "poisoned silver sky," at a time when workers were hurling themselves off the roof at Foxconn, one of Apple's key manufacturers.
Another, explaining why Apple Fanboys should see the show: (I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt this time and let's all assume Apple Fangirls should, too)
Daisey discovers that a lot of Apple’s products are made by hand — because human labor in China is a lot cheaper than building machines. But the humans are treated inhumanely — witness the rash of suicides at the plant.
“We exported our jobs to China,” said Daisey after the packed, opening-night show. “But we didn’t export our values.”
[...] The show is unapologetically polemical: Daisey is calling on Apple as an industry leader to improve working conditions at its Chinese subcontractors. An anti-sweatshop stance (somewhat) worked for Nike, now it’s Apple’s turn. If the company can get green in response to consumer demand, the same should be true for the treatment of its assembly-line workforce.
Some of the stuff about Apple culture is hilarious. Daisey marvels at Apple’s genius for design, its knack for convincing you that the device that gave you shivers of awe a few years ago is a piece of crap that must be replaced with the latest beautiful shiny new thing. He talks about the Apple II, “the first expensive appliance that millions of people buy, they turn it on, and it does nothing”—the idea being that you figure out what to do with it. And of course people did.
[...] But this would all be light entertainment were it not for the trip to Shenzhen, where Daisey circumvents the secretive and restrictive government and even more secretive corporate culture by taking advantage of the universally understood brazenness of a large white American in a Hawaiian shirt. He simply deposits himself unannounced in front of the factory with his indispensible translator and seeing if any of the workers want to talk to him—which they do, despite being in a country where union membership can get you imprisoned for life and filing a complaint through normal channels about lack of overtime pay puts you on a blacklist as a troublemaker. Later he poses as an American businessman to tour the facility.
What he discovers—and I’m sure you saw this coming—is that conditions are inhumane, so much so that there are nets all around the building as a half-assed response to workers throwing themselves off the roof. Although workdays are theoretically 8 hours, in practice they’re 12 to 16 hours of crippling repetitive labor without breaks, so that people deliberately drop things when they think they can get away with it, just for the moment’s respite of bending over to pick it up.
And here's Daisey himself in an interview about the show:
Fundamentally, I hаνе hаԁ οnƖу one hobby іn mу life аnԁ thаt’s technology. I work very hard аnԁ whаt ƖіttƖе free time I hаνе, I spend іt οn technology. I’m a pretty dedicated amateur.A lot οf Mac devotees ԁο, wе live іt, wе spend a lot οf time οn ουr gear аnԁ learning аbουt exactly hοw іt works – thе interface аnԁ thе design аnԁ everything.
Bυt іt changed mу relationship tο аƖƖ mу technology, іt basically brοkе mу heart.
I don’t hаνе a system whеrе now I аm nοt buying nеw technology аnԁ I haven’t mаԁе vows tο nοt bυу nеw technology, bυt I саn nο longer view іt thе same way. It nο longer hаѕ thе same carefreeness аѕ іt hаԁ before I personally witnessed whаt thе cost іѕ іn human terms. It’s nοt possible fοr mе tο еnјοу іt іn quite thе same way. Anԁ іt ԁοеѕ change hοw I’ll bе thinking whеn I need tο upgrade something…
I'm scheduled to see this show next month at Woolly Mammoth in D.C. After being blown away by "The Last Cargo Cult" (and reading a lot of his writing and material since) I just cannot recommend his work highly enough. It's informed, intelligent, passionate, entertaining, and deeply provocative. He also maintains a blog and a presence on Facebook. I learned from his Facebook page that apparently someone asked Apple COO Tim Cook whether he had any reaction to Daisey's show. Cook's response was: "If it's not on ESPN or CNBC, I don't see it." Well, now. Ain't that just broadminded of him? I think Cook will come to regret being so flip. It is from theatre and the arts that some of the most trenchant criticism comes. And Daisey has a platform. More power to him, I say.
Obviously these issues are not at all unique to Apple, but Apple deliberately cultivates a mystique and a passionate userbase. They may need to learn that with great power and visibility and "magical" devices like the iPad, comes great responsibility. We'll see.
Anyway, I encourage you all to see the show if it's anywhere near your town.
ObDisclosure: I went to college with Mike - we were friendly acquaintances and we both hail from poor, small-town Maine, so I consider him a kindred spirit, but I haven't seen him (except on stage and on Facebook) since then.