The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part One

This is Part One of “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” by Mike Daisey, the 2011 Trading 8s “Journalist of the Year”.

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1. “Midnight in the Chungking Mansions”
by Mike Daisey

The Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, is exquisitely designed. It’s like the inside of a sailing ship: everything has a place and everything is in its place. I actually find myself opening and closing the little drawers just to see the intricate way they’re fitted together…I can’t help it. It’s just the way I’m wired.

And I head down to the lobby of the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, and I step out into a twenty-first century Hong Kong monsoon season night—the air is so thick with moisture that it’s smearing the ubiquitous neon like we’ve all done just a little bit of LSD—

—and I’m walking down the streets and even though it’s after midnight, there are hundreds of people on every block, and there’s this humid sort of animal smell, the smell of humans in close proximity with one another, a smell we’ve all almost entirely forgotten.

And a few blocks down from the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, sits the Chungking Mansions.

The Chungking Mansions are a wretched hive of scum and villainy. They sit in the heart of Kowloon; they are nothing more and nothing less than a mall of inequities. Anything you want to get that you probably aren’t supposed to have you can find in the Chungking Mansions after midnight, and I am there, walking up and down the aisles.

It’s like globalism in action. It’s like a pirate-themed Benetton ad.

Sub-Saharan Africans with tribal scars are getting into arguments over garbage bags filled with second-hand cell phones, mainlanders are debating with Koreans over some mysterious root, and in an Indian food stall there are stacks and stacks of tiffins and an off-brand Slurpee machine called a Slurvee.

And in all of this, I am the only minority. Because I am white, and large, and I am wearing…a Hawaiian shirt.

Because you get to a certain point where you realize you just aren’t going to fit in. You get to a certain point and you realize it might be advantageous to just Columbo yourself right into the middle of a situation. I’ve been doing this for a long time, it’s a kind of professional blundering. I just kind of…wot, wot? Wot wot wot wot wot!

You get in the most interesting situations that way. Doesn’t help you get back out of them again, but it does make for an interesting life.

And I make my way up to the third floor of the Chungking Mansions, which is where things start getting a little sketchy. And in the course of half an hour I am offered hashish, opium, heroin, sex with women, sex with men, and sex in a combination only described as “delightful.”

And I decline all these offers because that’s not what I’m here for—I find what I’m looking for in a far corner of that third floor next to a rack of cut-rate papaya…there’s this booth.

And in this booth on strands of fishing wire are hundreds and hundreds of cell phones— as though they’ve been caught by some fisherman—and in a sense they have, because the man in the booth is seated at a workbench, he has a phone in front of him with the back popped off, he has a soldering iron in one hand and a big magnifying glass over his left eye. When I walk in he looks at me and his eye looms at me enormously.

And I speak to him in the only international language I know: I say, “iPhone?”

And he smiles, and there’s his gold tooth, and he reaches under the counter and he pulls out an iPhone…except it’s not an iPhone. You can tell right away from the packaging: the kerning on the fonts is all fucked up.

Then when you open it, the phone itself is a pretty good copy but when you turn it on, instead of the graceful swoop of icons onto the screen, these icons stagger on like they all got drunk in Kowloon. And then when you press one of them, instead of a photo-realistic address book, you get a big blue window and the words “ERROR IS MAKING.”

I hand back the “iPhone” and show him what it I mean: I reach into my pocket and I take out my iPhone and when he sees it, he understands and he reaches out his hand. And I take my baby, and I put it in his hand, and he takes a grimy dock cable and he shoves it into the bottom of the phone and his screens light up.

Because this man is a pirate. He’s a hacker, a jailbreaker, an unlocker, a person you go to to fiddle with the baseband of your phone, a person who writes tailored viruses to crack your phone open and give it back to you again, because—you may not know this—but there’s a war going on right now over all those devices in your pockets. A war over who owns them.

You probably think you own them. Why? Because you paid for them?

Silly! The corporations would see it a different way. They would say the devices run on their networks, so they should control them, and there’s a war going on right now, back and forth, over who will own those devices…and in a war like that, there’s a small percentage to be made by pirates like this one who give people back ownership of the things they thought they already owned.

And as he works, we talk back and forth in broken English, and I ask him if it’s hard to stay ahead of Apple and Nokia and Samsung and all the different technology makers who are always building up their defenses that the pirates then have to tear back down again.

And he smiles…and there’s that gold tooth again. And he gestures, a grand gesture that seems incongruous in this tiny booth, and for a moment—he doesn’t look like a hacker in the Chungking Mansions.

He looks like a warrior prince, and these are all his subjects. He smiles, as if to say, “It’s me against Apple. Who do you think is going to win?”

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Tomorrow: “Part Two: The World Before”