American monologist Mike Daisey’s expose of Apple’s factories in China was a powerful and deeply moving account of inhuman working conditions.
After hearing his piece The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (having downloaded the podcast on my iPhone), I rushed to tell friends they had to listen to this show.
But, shortly after the show’s airing on the revered This American Life, the story started to unravel.
There was no question conditions were bad in the factories, but guards at gates weren’t toting guns as Daisey claimed (there’s no armed private security in China at all).
Then he backpedalled on claims he’d met 12-year-old workers. Some people he’d claimed had told him they’d been poisoned working with toxic iPhone screen cleaner were actually a thousand miles from where Daisey visited factories in Shenzhen.
One of the most harrowing elements of the story—Daisey’s tale about meeting an elderly worker whose hand had been caught in a metal iPad press, and who was so fascinated to finally see an iPad turned on he called it “a kind of magic”—was called into question by Daisey’s translator, who says they’d never met anyone like that.
Hilton artist Tarryn Runkel and Yokine’s Laura Hopwood from emerging dance-theatre company Toyi Toyi Theatre had been in the middle of adapting Daisey’s work for a Perth audience when the scandal broke.
“When it came out that it was a lie, we were pretty crushed,” Runkel recalls.
They’d been in regular contact with Daisey while developing the local version but when the falsehoods came to light, “he went pretty silent after that”.
“I was very sad for a long time,” Hopwood says. “I was really disappointed in what he’d done, because there’s a lot of activists working in that area for a very long time and he just let the team down.”
The pair decided to press ahead with their own work The Agony, The Ecstasy and I, melding spoken word and dance and ruthlessly fact-checking every claim Daisey had made.
Their final script contains only material they could prove.
Even with the fabrications and unproveable material removed, the conditions remain bleak for those churning out hip products for the world’s biggest corporation (and others).
Runkel and Hopwood say Daisey’s dramatic embellisments have given apologists an excuse to dismiss uncomfortable truths about their shiny gadgets.
“Now if I want to talk about [working conditions] people say ‘but that guy made up that stuff’,” Hopwood says. “That is so damaging to the cause.
“People are desperate for a reason to not have to care about it.”
As two consumers wrestling with the ethics of an international supply chain that relies on exploiting workers, Hopwood and Runkel concede there are no easy answers.
If you don’t agree with the meat industry’s treatment of animals you can eat vegetables. But it’s hard to go vegan or free-range on tech: Just about every gadget comes from similar factories.
“Our one key message is: Just think,” Hopwood says. Because if people don’t even know the truth, there’s no way things can even begin to change.
“One of the biggest things for us, that hit us, was that these tiny pieces in the phone are put together by hand.”
If people walk away knowing more than they did before about their relationship with the supply chain, the pair will be happy with the start.
The Agony, The Ecstasy and I runs at the Blue Room in Perth, April 16 to May 4. Tickets $15-$25 from http://www.blueroom.org.au or call 9227 7005.