The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Part Six

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

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6. “Where All Our Shit Is Made”
by Mike Daisey

Emboldened by my success at Foxconn, I decide to embark on a new plan. But I’m going to need Cathy’s help if it’s going to work, so I meet with her in the lobby of my hotel and I say to her,

“Cathy, now you work with a lot of American businessmen, don’t you?” And she says, “Yes, I do.” And I say, “Great. Here’s what I want you to do: I want you to call all of the factories you have connections with, I want you to call them, and I want you to tell them that I am an American businessman, and that I want to buy whatever they are selling.”

And she listens to this, and she says, “But you…are not a businessman?”

And I say, “That’s true, I am not a businessman.”

And she says, “And you…aren’t going to buy their products?”

And I say, “That’s true. I am not going to buy their products.”

She says, “You…will lie to them.”

And I say, “Yes, Cathy. I’m going to lie to lots of people.”

And for a moment, I think it isn’t going to work.

And then you can actually see the idea leap the synaptic gap from a Problem to a Problem-To-Be-Solved.

She says:

<<very slowly, carefully, clearly, and quietly>>

“You…are going to need a lot…of business cards.”

And two days later we head out into the factory zone. As we come to each factory, Cathy briefs me on what it is they make and what it is I have said I am going to buy.

The factories are all different, but really, they’re more similar than different—there’s always gates and guards, you get past those there’s always a lawn, big and green and plush—no one walks on it, no one uses it. You go into the lobbies—the lobbies are these huge, empty Kubrickian spaces, totally empty except for a tiny little desk for the receptionist. You cross the HUGE empty lobby to the tiny little desk, introduce yourself, and then the executives always come down in a gaggle loolololo all together loololoololo they pick you up loololoololo and you go up together loololoololooloolooloolo to a conference room. For the exchanging of the business cards.

And Cathy had told me this would be very important, that when we got in that room it’d be very formal, and each person would come up to me in turn and they would offer me their business card with two hands, and it was very important that I accept it with two hands, and that I then examine it:

“Mmmmmmm…Lucida Grande. Excellent font choice. Mmmmmmmm…”

And after each and every one of them have done this, they are all staring at me. Because it’s my turn. And I reach into my pocket and I pull out…some grimy slips of fucked-up paper.

Because it’s hard to find a Kinko’s in Shenzhen!

And the business office at my hotel, it’s like it’s from before the fucking revolution, and the woman there is totally scary, and the keyboard doesn’t make any fucking sense, and the paper is slimy and gray, and they don’t have scissors, they’re like child safety—it’s so fucked up. I don’t even know how to tell you how fucked up it is.

It’s really fucked up.

And so I take…my fucked-up piece of paper, and I go…

<< holds out card with two hands while turning face away in embarrassed grimace >>

Thank God for the protocol of the Chinese! They do not even blink. They take my fucked-up piece of paper and they go, “Mmmmmmm…interesting made-up business name with fake address. Mmmmmmm…” And then, it’s time for the PowerPoint.

And one of the reasons I have lived my life in the manner that I have is so that I do not have to go to PowerPoint presentations.

That was sort of the fucking point of all this.

But life has its little ironies sometimes, doesn’t it?

And I made up for it in Shenzhen…oh, yes I did. Because I went to all the PowerPoint presentations. Every last fucking one of them, because PowerPoint is a tool designed by Microsoft.

Microsoft, whose motto should be, “Building Tools That Do Shit We Can Already Do.”

Because the point of PowerPoint is that it enables people who are in the same room to communicate with one another.

<<a gesture indicating this process>>

As you can tell from the form of my theatrical presentation, I believe we have a tool that does that already: it’s called the human voice. It’s built-in and it hardly ever crashes.

But why would we want to talk to one another when instead we can use PowerPoint with all its fucking features—like the clip art? AARRRGH…the clip art makes my eyes bleed!

And the fonts! Ohhhhhh, they use all the fonts! Comic Sans?

There’s nothing comic about Comic Sans.

They put up the first slide, and it’s got a big jpeg that’s all pixilated, like someone’s smacking me in the retina with a ball-peen hammer. And then the person running the PowerPoint goes <<slowly and deliberately hitting a mouse button>> …clllliiiiick. And a single line of text appears, in English, and the text says,

“The plant uses thirty thousand gallons of water every day.”

There’s a pause.

And then the click-er says:

<<pause>>

“The plant uses thirty thousand gallons of water every day.”

!!! And then nothing happens! Until and unless—I manually nod. I have to literally go,

<<big, exaggerated nod>>

“Mmmmmm . . . ”

And only then will they…clllliiiiick, and another line of text appears.

It’s fucking interminable! It goes on and on—I swear to God there are nights I wake up in the middle of the night, even now, thinking,

“Is it still going on? Am I still at the presentation?”

It goes on for so long I seriously start thinking about the fact that I am an “actor” playing the “role” of an American businessman…

There are actual businesspeople out there! For whom this is their actual life!

How does that happen to someone?! You go to school, you fall in love, and this, this, THIS is what you’re spending your one precious life on?

What the fuck happened to you?!

They must have a penknife in their pockets, you know, just for luck, just for something to hold onto, just so they can rub it as the slides are going by, just so they can know that if it ever gets to be too much, if it ever gets to be too fucking much, then they can STAB themselves in the FUCKING neck, and it will be over.

Worst job in the fucking world.

After the PowerPoint, we head down to the factory floor. And I retract my previous assertion because this is the worst job in the fucking world.

Industrial spaces with twenty, twenty-five, thirty thousand workers in a single enormous space, they can exert a kind of eerie fascination—there’s a beauty to industrialization on such a massive scale. You don’t have to deny it—there’s a wonder to seeing so much order laid out in front of you, and people are walking around whispering statistics in your ear, it’s easy to slip into a kind of Stalinist wet dream. I try to subvert that by locking onto actual faces as they take me up and down the aisles. And the first thing I notice is the silence.

It’s so quiet.

At Foxconn, you’re demerited if you ever speak on the line, at no factory that I went to did anyone ever speak on the line—but this is deeper than that.

As a creature of the First World, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sounds of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand.

Rest assured, no matter how complex your electronics are they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert, and in those vast spaces the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion.

And it is constant. They work a Chinese hour, and a Chinese hour has sixty Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has sixty Chinese seconds—it’s not like our hour.

What’s our hour now? Forty-six minutes? You have a bathroom break, and a smoke break, and if you don’t smoke, there’s a yoga break…

This doesn’t look anything like that. This looks like nothing we’ve seen in a century. They work on the lines and a line only moves as fast as its slowest member, so each person learns how to move perfectly, as quickly as possible—if they can’t do it, there are people behind them, watching them, and there are cameras watching both sets of people, and people watching the cameras—they lock it down. They sharpen it to a fine, sharp edge, every hour, and those hours are long.

The official workday in China is eight hours long. That’s a joke. I never met anyone who’d even heard of an eight-hour shift. Everyone I talked to worked twelve-hour shifts, standard. And often much longer than that: fourteen hours a day, fifteen hours a day, sometimes when there’s a hot new gadget coming out—you know what the fuck I’m talking about— sometimes it pegs up at sixteen hours a day and it just sits there for weeks and months at a time, month after month of straight sixteens—sometimes longer than that.

While I’m in country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a thirty-four-hour shift. I wish I could say that was unusual, but it’s happened before. I only mention it because it actually happened while I was there.

And I go to the dormitories. I’m a valuable potential future customer: they will show me anything I ask to see.

The dormitories are cement cubes, ten foot by twelve foot—and in that space, there are thirteen beds. Fourteen beds. I count fifteen beds. They’re stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow none of us would actually fit in them—they have to slide into them like coffins. There are cameras in the rooms, there are cameras in the hallways, there are cameras everywhere.

And why wouldn’t there be? You know when we dream of a future when the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don’t have to dream about some sci-fi-dystopian-BladeRunner1984-bullshit. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow— they’re making your shit that way today.

And you need to know that these people are among the best and brightest of their generation. You need to know that when I interview them outside the factories, they are, each of them, as bright and individual as you are out there in the darkness. You need to know these are exactly the people who fought their way out of their villages, to make a new life for themselves in these cities. These are exactly the people who could have the spirit to think about democracy.

But, fortunately for Beijing, they have a heat sink in the south of the country, they have an economic honey trap that soaks up all those people and keeps them busy, too busy to think about freedom, too busy making all our shit.

When I leave the factories I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me. I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out; the way I see everything is starting to change.

I keep thinking, how often do we talk about how we wish more things were handmade?

Oh, we talk about that all the time, don’t we?

“I wish it was like the old days, I wish things had that human touch.”

But that’s not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world. Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair, one, after another, after another.

Everything is handmade. If you have the eyes to see it.

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Tomorrow: “Part Seven: The Second Coming”