If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will.
If we don’t cannibalize ourselves, someone else will.
8. “The Secret Union”
by Mike Daisey
I’m at a restaurant in the factory zone, seated at a table with Cathy, and this aphorism is running through my head over and over again—I can’t remember who said it originally—that paranoia is not paranoia when they’re actually out to get you.
And I go through my checklist again: I’ve gone through my pockets and found every slip of paper with an email address or a phone number and I’ve destroyed all of those. I’ve hidden all my paper notes off of my person, and I’ve erased everything on my laptop, and anything I can’t erase is on an encrypted partition that I hope is encrypted enough. I have done all of these things because I am at this restaurant to meet with a union.
Because there are unions in China. There are the ones that are fronts for the Communist Party, and then there are actual unions, interested in labor reform. They’re called “secret unions” because in China, if you are caught being a member of or affiliating with a union like that, you go to prison. You go to prison for many years, and that’s why I’ve had to take these precautions.
And getting this meeting involved climbing a ladder of associations, going to meeting after meeting, and each step of way just making good my intentions, just being clear that I am a storyteller, that I just want to hear people’s stories, I just want to hear what they have to say.
And the union organizers come in and sit down, and it’s awkward at first, and then they tell me about the situation on the ground. There is so much turmoil in southern China, so much happening just beneath the surface. And they tell me about the two Honda plants that have gone on strike in the north of the province and how they helped organize that strike, and I think about what it would mean to go on strike in a country where even being a member of a union can get you thrown in prison, what it would take to be pushed to that point.
And these organizers are young. They don’t even look college-aged, they look younger than that. And I say to them, “How do you know who’s right to work with you? How do you find people to help you organize, to do what you do?”
And this sort of breaks the narrative, and they look at each other bashfully, and they say, “Well, we talk a lot, we have a lot of meetings—we meet at coffeehouses, different Starbucks in Guangzhou, we exchange papers, sometimes there are books…”
And it’s so clear, in this moment, that they are making this up as they go along.
The way so many of us do.
The way pirates do. The way rebels do.
The way the crazy ones who change the world do—they all make it up as they go along.
Then the workers start coming in. They come in twos and threes and fours, they come in all day—it’s a nine, ten hour day. I interview all of them. Some of them are in groups—there’s a group there talking about hexane.
Hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner; it’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means then you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with those quotas. The problem is that hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably, some of them can’t even pick up a glass.
I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable: if these people were rotated monthly on their jobs this would not happen—but that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care, that would require someone at Apple and Samsung and the other customers to care; currently, no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that.
And so, when you start working at fifteen or sixteen, by the time you are twenty-six, twenty-seven—your hands are ruined.
And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further—you know what you do with a defective part in a machine that makes machines.
You throw it away.
And the thing that unites all these people is that they are all the kind of people who would join a union in a place where joining a union can ruin your life.
I talk with one woman—bird-like, very nervous—and she just wants to explain to me how it is she came to be in a union. Because she never thought she would be in a union, it’s just that she couldn’t get her company to pay her overtime. And she complained and complained, this went on for weeks and for months—and Cathy says to her, kind of sharply, “Why didn’t you go to the Labor Board? That’s what they’re there for. You should have complained to the Labor Board.”
And the woman says, “I did. I went to the Labor Board, and I told them about my problem, and they took down my name and my address and my company, and they took my name and they put it on the blacklist. And they fired me.”
And then she shows me a copy of the blacklist—a friend of hers in accounting photocopied it and snuck it out to her. She gives it to me, I hand it to Cathy to translate. You know, in a fascist country run by thugs, you don’t have to be subtle. You can say exactly what you fucking mean. The sheet is very clear that it comes from the Labor Board, and it says, right across the top, “The following is a list of troublemakers. If any of them are found in your employ, dismiss them immediately.”
And then there’s column after column after column of names, page after page after page of them.
Cathy’s hand trembles as she translates it.
I talk to an older worker with leathery skin. His right hand is twisted up into a claw. It was crushed in a metal press at Foxconn.
He says he didn’t receive any medical attention and it healed this way, and then when he went back to work, he was too slow, and they fired him.
Today he works at a wood-working plant. He says he likes it better. He says the people are nicer and the hours are more reasonable. He works about seventy hours a week.
And I ask him what he did when he was at Foxconn, and he says he worked on the metal enclosures for the laptops and he worked on the iPad.
And when he says this, I reach into my satchel and I take out my iPad, and when he sees it, his eyes widen. Because in one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point, there are no iPads in China. Even though every last one of them was made at this factory in Shenzhen, they’ve all been packaged up in perfectly minimalist Apple packaging and then shipped across the seas so that we can all enjoy them. He’s never actually seen one on. This thing that took his hand.
I turn it on, unlock the screen, pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view. And he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth, and he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “He says it’s a kind of magic.”
It’s a long day. And at the end of it, I’m packing up everything to go, and Cathy says something to me—out of nowhere—she says, “Do you think these people are mentally ill? Do you think it is possible that they are making all this up?”
And I look at her, as though for the first time, because, I mean, let’s be clear: she’s my Chinese worker. I mean, I pay her for her time, I don’t think about her very much at all. But now, I really look at her. She is exactly who all these workers I’ve been talking to for weeks, she is exactly who they all are dreaming that their children will one day be. She has a good life in the center of Shenzhen for her, for her family—what does this look like to her?
I say to her, “What do you think? Do you think they’re mentally ill?”
And she suddenly looks very tired. And she takes off her glasses. And she rubs the bridge of her nose. And she says,
“No. I do not think they are mentally ill. It’s just that…you hear stories, but you do not think it is going to be so much. You know?
It’s just so much. Do you know what I mean?”
And I reach across the table and I touch her hand.
It’s the first and last time we will ever touch, I and this woman whose real name I don’t even know. I say to her,
“I know exactly what you mean.”
Tomorrow: “Part Nine: A Virus of the Mind”
7. “The Second Coming”
by Mike Daisey
At this point, people at Apple are excited about Scully. They feel like maybe it’s time for Apple to be a grown-up company.
What they don’t understand is that while Steve Jobs is kind of a megalomaniacal asshole and a little bit of a brutal tyrant, he’s also the glue that’s been holding the company together— and as soon as he leaves, it’s only then that people realize that Apple is filled with mad geniuses.
Thousands and thousands of mad geniuses! And as soon as Steve Jobs is out the door, they’re all going,
“MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Finally! My plan will come to fruition! I will finally mate a monkey and a pony! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”
And Scully? What’s Scully doing? Scully’s walking up and down the halls going,
<<in an excessively low-key Scully voice>>
“Hey…does anybody want to ship anything? Okay, well…let me know if you want to ship anything. I’ll be in my office, drinking a Pepsi.”
And all the rigor goes out of the place and things start getting real weird, real fast. And pet projects that should stay small start getting bigger and bigger and bigger because there’s no one there to knife the baby. Like the time that Apple tried to create its own version of the internet…yeah, that didn’t go very well.
Or, most famously, the Newton.
And the Newton is a tale of heartbreak for the ages because the Newton was a fantastic machine. The Newton was a personal electronic organizer—and when you tell people that they say, “Oh, like the Palm Pilot?”
Noooooo. Fuck the Palm Pilot—the Palm Pilot was made of Legos and bullshit.
The Newton was amazing. The Newton could understand your fucking handwriting; you’d just write whatever you wanted, it’d automatically put it in the address book, in the calendar…
It was the future! In your hand!
Except…it didn’t work.
And they tried, oh my GOD, they tried, and they delayed it and delayed it and they finally ship it, and all the Apple faithful run out and buy it and they’re like, “My precious!,” and they take it home, “Honey, honey, come see this! I’ve got the future, in my hand! Watch this: <<mimes writing onto the Newton>> Doctor’s appointment at 2pm tomorrow.”
And the Newton says…
<<studying the Newton with great consternation and a palpable sense of loss>>
“That isn’t what I wrote…
…I don’t know why the future isn’t working… Maybe it’s me.”
Because in this, Apple users are a little bit like battered wives.
They blame themselves: “I can change! I can change my handwriting so that the Newton likes it! I know that we can have a relationship, I have to make it work!”
<<now writing the same script, but grotesquely exaggerated >>
DOCTOR’S APPOINTMENT AT 2 PM TOMORROW!
And the Newton says…
This is the era of the PowerBook 5300—the flaming PowerBook. I don’t mean that your laptop gets warm or it gets hot—I mean actual fucking fire comes out of the keyboard! Your laptop bursts into flames! They recall them all, they replace the batteries…now, they do not burst into flames, but they only get seventeen minutes of battery life.
This is the era when on Apple’s early internet website, they have an actual, approved troubleshooting tech note telling users to take the affected machine, hold it six inches over the surface of the table…and drop it.
Doesn’t. Inspire. Confidence.
At this point, Apple is fucked. No tech company has ever come back from a deficit like this. WIRED magazine actually does an entire issue called “The Death of Apple” and it’s filled with obituaries written by prominent tech pundits mourning the fact that Apple is gone. And Apple is in the humiliating position of having to issue a press release in response saying,
“Ha-ha-ha, actually, it’s ok, everything is really ok, ha-ha-ha.”
It’s like a Viking funeral where the Viking is saying,
“Oh! Actually, I’m okay! I think I’m okay!”
And everyone else says, “No, you’re not,” and they push the barge out onto the lake and they set it on fire.
And at this point, the unlikeliest savior appears:
Apple asks Steve Jobs to come back.
And if you’re like me…
…don’t you wish we could’ve heard that phone call?
<<in the manner of Bob Newhart’s famous one-sided phone calls>>
“Hey, Steve! Long time no see!…Yeah, it’s been about twelve years <<listening>> since we threw you out the company, that’s right, that’s right. But you’ve been busy! Yes, we’ve been busy, too <<listening>> running the company into the ground, that’s right, that’s right.
Listen, Steve. The board has asked me to call you to ascertain if you’d be interested in the possibility of…
<<puts hand over receiver and gesticulates wildly to other board members, miming a silent argument with them, begging them to talk to this asshole in the crassest terms. After a standoff, returning to the phone>>
—the board has asked me to call you to ascertain if you would be interested in the possibility of—
<<as before, but even more animatedly, with weeping and agitas, until being dragged back to the phone to say through gritted teeth>>
Because each side has exactly what the other side needs.
Apple…needs Jesus Fucking Christ.
But He is not available…
…so Steve Jobs will have to do.
They also need a working next-generation operating system, because while they were busy pissing away hundreds of millions of dollars trying to mate a manatee and a walrus, they forgot to make a working next-generation operating system.
Meanwhile, Steve Jobs in his years in exile has actually created his own computer company in his own image: NeXT Computers.
And NeXT Computers sort of embodies everything that is both fabulous and frustrating about Steve Jobs. It’s sort of like a narcissism supernova of Jobsian id.
On the fabulous side, the operating system is amazing: it’s the world’s first object-oriented operating system. It’s literally ten years ahead of its time. The thing about things that are ten years ahead of their time? Is that they are ten years ahead of their time.
So they’re not compatible with fuck-all that you are using today.
On the frustrating side, this is Steven P. Jobs, a man who does not know the meaning of the word “compromise.”
His idea of a reasonable computer to break into the crowded computer market of the late 80s is the NeXT Cube.
Which is a solid black cube of milled magnesium.
It is a TRIUMPH of industrial design.
It is compatible with NONE of your peripherals!
It can run NONE of your software!
And it costs FOURTEEN THOUSAND DOLLARS!
It doesn’t do very well. It really doesn’t do very well, and at this point, NeXT has no assets to speak of except for a kick-ass next-generation operating system. And so Apple acquires NeXT—but in reality, it feels a little bit more like tiny little NeXT somehow swallows up Apple.
Steve Jobs comes back and in one of his first orders of business, he makes some subtle changes to the board of directors so that this shit will never happen again. Then he installs his lieutenants to take control, and he interviews everyone at Apple, looking for diamonds in the rough—this is how he finds Jonathan Ive, a junior industrial designer. He promotes him up and a new order begins to take hold.
The Mac OS with its smiling Mac face and its friendly error messages…they take it out behind the barn and they shoot it in the back of the head, and they throw its body in a ditch.
And they take the NeXT operating system, which, as I told you, was ten years ahead of its time, well…it’s ten years later. So it’s right on schedule.
They transplant it into the heart of the Mac and it becomes Mac OS X—it becomes the system that runs all of Apple’s devices today.
And a new Apple begins to rise. An Apple that’s more design-driven, more focused, more ruthless, more elegant, more…secretive. The old Apple was practically an open shop, you could just ask people what was going on and they would tell you. Now, the gates are closed, the doors are shut, no one knows what the fuck is going on in there in Cupertino. It’s like Willy Wonka after Slugworth.
And then devices start coming out that the old Apple never would have thought of— lifestyle devices, like little boxes that play all your music, and they’re compatible with Macs and PCs, and they spread out like a halo around the world, changing people’s ideas about what Apple is as a company.
And then, when Jobs showed us the iPhone…those of us who follow technology could feel here was the metaphor, shifting again. Here was the new new thing. Gone is the cursor, gone is the windowing interface—it’s so simple, even a child could use it. But the changes go much deeper than that. Every device that runs that touch interface is locked down. You will never touch that operating system, that belongs to Apple and Apple alone. You will never install your own programs on those machines, instead you will download them from Apple’s servers, and Apple will choose what is available and take a healthy cut of each and every proceeding. Unless you jailbreak those devices, you will never truly own them.
And a walled garden begins to rise up around all the Apple users who frolic and play…and a new deal is struck between Apple and its users and the terms of the new deal are:
<<In the voice of Apple—Zeus meets Charlton Heston>>
WE ARE APPLE. Have we not always given you the very finest devices? Have we not given you the best user experience?
We did that because we have exquisite taste.
We have exquisite taste.
And you…do not.
We are going to protect you from your taste.
We are going to lock this shit down once and for all. And let’s be clear—you’re going love what’s coming next, but this is the end of the garage, this is the end of hacking your own shit, this is the end of Wozniak—this is the rise of the consumer.
And that will be your role. You will consume.
You will drink from Apple’s servers—it will be a new virtuous circle between each of you and the corporate entity that is Apple, you will be tied together, and with each app you download you will be bound even more tightly.
But you will not mind…because you will never leave. Why would you leave? They’re the very best devices in the world, are they not?
You will use them, and you will love them.
You will love them, and they will own you.
Tomorrow: “Part Eight: The Secret Union”
by Alex Nakahara
Technology makes our lives easier and more productive. That is the rationale for research and development. This improvement in convenience, however, is tied to a corresponding decrease in privacy and increase in trust. The growing question with technology is how to find new ways to improve productivity while trying to moderate the invasion of privacy that our increasing symbiosis with our devices and software requires while determining who is worthy of our trust.
When I referred to an “invasion of privacy” along with “technology”, the first example to pop into your head was probably social networking, or, more simply, Facebook. There are countless examples of job searches poisoned by inopportune pictures and posts and discoveries by principals and parents of misdeeds by students. Almost everyone has de-tagged a picture of themselves that was unflattering, at best.
This is not what I am referring to when I speak of privacy.
While it certainly is one facet of privacy, an embarrassing Facebook album, celebrity photo scandal or insensitive Twitter post by an athlete is by and large a personal choice. The material usually originates with you, so don’t be surprised if it pops up later, either because of a hacker, carelessness, or your own efforts. To examine the aspect of privacy I want to talk about, let’s look at another indispensable modern gadget: the cell phone.
To call today’s smartphone a telephone is misleading. The iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones all have more power and capability than desktop computers did not that long ago. It often seems like their functionality is exponentially increasing. But as their usefulness increases, so does their invasion of our privacy. We accept this because we can seemingly no longer live without our email and e-reader and e-everything. But I think that few of us consider what is truly going on under the hood, and, more importantly, where it is headed.
GPS: a life-saver, for many people. No longer will you wander around a city, forlornly asking for directions at every corner grocery and gas station. You are in control of your own destiny!
And look! You can show off how intrepid you are to your friends by using apps like Foursquare and become the mayor of exotic places like Harvard Yard, having “checked in” 13 times in the last 2 weeks. But on the flip side of the coin, you have, given the way information can propagate, now broadcasted your location to anyone who cares.
Foursquare recently came up with a new innovation: Radar. This builds on Apple’s Find My Friends, and basically means that you can follow your friends’ movements live (they can, of course, disable it if they want to) and see who’s close to you and what they’re up to. You can even see when all your friends went to the movies… without you. Where 10 or 20 years ago, you might never have found out and gone on with your life happily without having seen Transformers 3, now you spend an evening trying to figure out why your friends ditched you. It must be because they all secretly hate you. It can’t be because you had loudly proclaimed you would never see any Transformers movie.
The obvious remedy for this is not to use the application or disable it, which is easy enough. However, given the popularity of Foursquare and the ever-increasing pace of adoption of new technologies, it will probably become commonplace. Even if this particular application fails, the movement to share more and more information will continue to move forward.
For me, the actual sharing isn’t really a big deal. What worries me is what happens after the act. Digital storage is dirt cheap, and it seems like almost everything is archived somewhere. How long will it be before you can go back and look at every step you took last year laid out on a map?
Examples like this already exist. Google Chat and AOL Instant Messenger have the option to archive all your conversations automatically. It’s useful, and I do it, but it’s just one more addition to this ever-growing database about me that I have only tenuous (if any) control over.
This example demonstrates the other key idea behind new technologies: trust. As technology grows more complex, we have to entrust our privacy to more and more players because there’s not one giant database in the sky; Google has information about you, as does Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and many other companies, not to mention governments.
I recently watched the movie Horrible Bosses, and there is a scene where (mild spoiler) the navigation system in the protagonists’ car shuts down the engine because the operator had overheard the protagonists talking about a crime they supposedly committed. This technology already exists, and while services like OnStar are currently premium features, it’s not unforeseeable that every car could have such a system. Combined with advances in automation, instead of merely shutting down the engine a person could lock the windows and doors and send the car to the nearest police station. On the other side of a coin, such technology could mean a hacker could simply order cars to drive to his location, making it incredibly easy to steal a car. Do we think of car companies as being particularly secure? It’s not the first attribute that comes to mind. Even technology companies like Sony can have enormous problems with security. Whom can we trust? Whom should we trust?
So what do we do about this competition between convenience, privacy and trust? The answer lies in what we want the role of technology to be in the future.
Do we want cars that drive us where we need to go? Do we want phones that tell us to go to a bar because our friends are there? What about a phone that tells us to go to a bar because it has determined that you would have a good time there? Do we want email that filters our spam? That categorizes our email by importance? That can learn your style and write responses for you? Some of these things exist already, and it’s not too much of a leap to imagine the other ones could exist soon. While I think that the fate of humans as shown in WALL-E is unlikely, it’s a possibility.
My personal view is that privacy, secrecy, and to some measure, inconvenience, are what makes us interesting to each other and that the existence of such technology should not demand its use.
To some degree, progress is unavoidable. Thanks to email and smartphones, responses are now measured in seconds and minutes, not hours and days. Vacations are seldom carefree any more.
But there is no reason why every thought should be tweeted and every landmark be checked in to and no reason why every movie we see be chosen by our phone.
We have reached a time where a certain lack of privacy is unavoidable, and we should choose where to place our trust wisely.
But we should not let trust in our technology supplant trust in ourselves. To do so removes us from reality.
4. “The Gates of Foxconn”
by Mike Daisey
Shenzhen is a city without history.
The people who live there will tell you that, because thirty-one years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village. They had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts, the men would fish into the late afternoon—I hear it was lovely. Today, Shenzhen is a city of fourteen million people. It is larger than New York City, it is the third largest city in all of China, and it is the place where almost all of your shit comes from.
And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name.
Isn’t that remarkable?
That there’s a place where almost all of our shit comes from and no one knows its fucking name?
I mean, we think we do know where our shit comes from—we think our shit comes from China.
Right? In kind of a generalized way? “China.”
But it doesn’t come from “China”—it comes from Shenzhen. It’s a city, it’s a place, and I am there, in an elevator, going down to the lobby of my hotel to meet with my translator, Cathy.
Cathy is fascinating: she’s very small, and she has sort of rounded shoulders, and she has these glasses that are way too big for her face so they keep sliding down and she has to push them up assiduously. She also has this sort of unnerving habit that when she is listening to you, she leans forward…indeterminately. So you get the feeling that if you were to talk to her for long enough, she would actually fall into your chest, and you’d have to pick her back up again.
We go outside and get into a taxi and begin to drive through the streets of downtown Shenzhen.
Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and fifteen-story-high video walls covered in shitty Chinese advertising: it’s everything they promised us the future would be.
We get out to the edge of the core of Shenzhen and we come to the gates. Because thirty- one years ago, when Deng Xiaoping carved this area off from the rest of China with a big red pen, he said, “This will be the Special Economic Zone,” and he made a deal with the corporations, he said, “Listen, use our people, do whatever you want to our people, just give us a modern China.” And the corporations took that deal and they squeezed and they squeezed and what they got is the Shenzhen we find today.
And on the other side of the gates it’s the factory zone and WHOO! —it’s like going from the Eloi to the Morlocks: everything changes. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything is under construction. Every road has a bypass, every bypass has a bypass—it’s bypasses all the way down. I swear to God, I actually see buildings being built up on one side as they’re being torn down on the other.
And we pull onto an elevated expressway, and we begin to drive under a silver poisoned sky, because the air in Shenzhen…it’s not good in Hong Kong, but when you get to Shenzhen, you can actually feel it. Like a booted foot pressing down on your chest. But it’s amazing, what human beings will get used to, isn’t it?
Because after just a few days
<<takes a deep breath>>
you hardly even notice it at all.
And as we’re driving, we’re passing by arcology after arcology, these immense buildings that are so large they are redefining my sense of scale moment by moment, and then our taxi driver takes an exit ramp, and he stops.
Because the exit ramp stops. In mid-air.
There’s some rebar sticking out…and an eighty-five foot drop to the ground.
The only sign that the exit ramp ends is a single, solitary, orange cone.
It’s sitting there, as if to say,
“We’re busy…? Be alert…?”
We back back onto the expressway and begin to drive again, and then Cathy turns to me, pushes up her glasses, and says, “Excuse me, but I do not think this is going to work.”
And I hasten to assure her that it will work, but I’m talking out of my ass because I don’t know that it’s going to work; in fact, I have a lot of evidence that this is not going to work. In fact, all the journalists I have talked to in Hong Kong, when I tell them about my plan, you can actually see them wrestling with just how to express to me just how totally fucked my plan is.
My plan is this: We are in a taxi right now, in the factory zone, we are driving on our way to Foxconn.
Foxconn is the biggest company you’ve never heard of. Foxconn makes almost fifty percent of all the electronics in the world. So if you’re ever wondering how much of your shit comes from Foxconn, just take all the electronics you have in your house, put them together in a big pile, cut them all in half: that’s Foxconn.
And at this plant, they make all kinds of things, including MacBook Pros and iPhones and iPads, and so my plan is to take this taxi to the main gates, and then I’m going to get out of the taxi with my translator, and then my plan is to stand at the main gates and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.
And when I tell journalists in Hong Kong about this plan, they say,
“That’s…different. That’s not really how we usually do things in China…ah…that’s really a bad idea—”
But I don’t know what the fuck else to do. I have been trying to do things “the right way,” I can’t get anywhere. I’ve been working with a fixer for the BBC—all the doors are closed.
And you reach a certain point when you realize you may need to obey your natural inclinations.
And at the end of the day, I am large,
I am American,
and I am wearing a fucking Hawaiian shirt.
And we are going to the main gates.
But I have to say, when we get there…my resolve wavers.
Because the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen is enormous. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen has four-hundred-and-thirty-thousand workers.
That can be a difficult number to conceptualize. I find it’s useful to instead think about how there are twenty-five cafeterias at the plant and you just have to understand that some of these cafeterias seat thousands of people.
So now you just need to visualize a cafeteria that seats thousands and thousands of people.
No, really. I’ll wait.
You can do it. Try visualizing a cafeteria from your youth—maybe one from grade school, maybe one you went to hundreds and hundreds of times against your will, that would be appropriate. Summon it up in your mind.
Ok. Now. Hold it in your mind.
What I want you to do now is push the walls outward…start cloning the space like a Photoshop tool, over and over and over until it holds thousands of people.
Now, imagine twenty five rooms, all that size, all next to each other.
And now imagine them always full—because they always are. If you’re late from your shift, even a little bit, you aren’t getting any dinner.
And I get to the main gates, and I get out of the taxi with my translator, and the first thing I see at the gates are the guards.
And the guards look pissed. They look really pissed.
And they are carrying guns.
And I look back at the taxi which is now pulling away…and I’m involuntarily reminded of this Google News alert that popped into my inbox a few weeks earlier about an Reuters photographer who was taking pictures not at the Foxconn plant but near the Foxconn plant and Foxconn security went out, scooped him up, and beat him before releasing him.
I hope they’re in a better mood today.
And I look up past the gates and the guards, I look up at the buildings, these immense buildings, they are so enormous, and along the edges of each enormous building are the nets.
Because right at the time that I am making this visit, there’s been an epidemic of suicides at the Foxconn plant.
Day after day, week after week, worker after worker is climbing all the way up to the tops of these enormous buildings and then throwing themselves off, killing themselves in a brutal and public manner, not thinking very much about just how bad this makes Foxconn look.
Foxconn’s response to month after month of suicides has been to put up these nets.
I think it’s Foxconn’s version of corporate responsibility.
It’s shift change, and the workers are coming out of the plant, and I’m standing there under the hot monsoon sun in the gaze of the guards. I feel ridiculous. I look absurd in this landscape—I mean, I wouldn’t talk to me!
And Cathy surprises me—she’s a spitfire, who knew?—she runs right over to the very first worker, grabs them by the arm, drags them over to us, we start talking…and in short order, we cannot keep up.
First, there’s one worker waiting, then there’s two, then there’s three, and before long the guards are like,
and we move further and further away from the plant, but the line just gets longer and longer—everyone wants to talk! We start taking them three or four at a time—we still can’t keep up. Everyone wants to talk. It’s like they were coming to work every day, thinking,
“You know what’d be great? It’d be so great if somebody who uses all this crap we make, all day long, it’d be so great if one of those people came and asked us what is going on. Because we would have stories for them.”
And I’m just ad-hoc-ing questions, I’m asking the questions you would expect: “What village in China are you from? How long have you been working at Foxconn? What do you do at the plant? How do you find your job? What would you change at Foxconn if you could change anything?”
That last question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces and then they say something to Cathy and Cathy says, “He says he never thought of that before.” Every time. Every time.
And the stories are fascinating. I talk to one young woman who works on the iPhone line. She cleans the screens of iPhones by hand, in these huge racks, thousands and thousands of them every day, and she shows me how she does it, and I show her my iPhone and I hand her my iPhone—I take a picture of her holding my iPhone—and I say to her, “We’ll never know, you may have cleaned the screen of this iPhone when it came by you on the line, we’ll never know.” And, quick as a whip, she takes my phone and she rubs it against her pants and then she says, “There, I’ve cleaned it a second time.”
And I say to her, “You seem kind of young—how old are you?”
And she says, “I’m thirteen.”
And I say, “Thirteen. That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re…?”
She says, “Oh no,” and her friends all agree, it’s not that hard. There are inspections, but Foxconn always knows when there’s going to be an inspection, so what they do then—you’re going to love this—they don’t even check ages then, they just pull everyone from the affected line and then they put the oldest workers they have on that line.
You’d think someone would notice this, you know? You’d think someone would say, “My god, you guys are amazing! I can’t believe you keep up with our BRUTAL iPhone quotas and your median age is…ahhhh…74! Chinese productivity, am I right? We gotta get some of you guys back home to Cupertino!”
I am telling you that I do not speak Mandarin, I do not speak Cantonese, I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture—I don’t know fuck-all about Chinese culture.
But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate,
I met workers who were fourteen years old,
I met workers who were thirteen years old,
I met workers who were twelve.
Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?
In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know?
Or are they just doing what we’re all doing?
Do they just see what they want to see?
Tomorrow: “Part Five: Change the World”