After watching The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – and reading various supporting materials – I am surprised that the problems of Mike Daisey’s conflation of characters has been used to undermine the broad thrust of his argument. He has admitted that he fictionalised the meetings he had with workers at the factory that provides Apple with its consumer electronics but even if the vision he presents of the working conditions in these factories is half-true, the technology of the western world is responsible for plunging Chinese workers into a terrible situation.
Having seen Daisey perform in Glasgow, I feel that his dishonesty (he presented his monologue as journalism rather than theatre on the radio) is more part of his artistry than a desire to deceive. It is as if he regards the message as more important than the literal truth – a sensibility shared by liberal Christians and anyone who recognises the scientific theories are models rather than accurate descriptions of reality. Unfortunately, he blundered into a medium where honesty is vital.
Counter arguments insist that the life of these workers are not as bleak as painted. There’s also the problem that any attempt to resist the factory, say via a boycott, will exclude the activist from buying anything electrical. Daisey uses Apple as an example, not the most blatant offender – the same factory makes PCs and blenders, toasters, everything electrical.
However, the importance of Agony is in the response of the audience. Either listening passively to Daisey’s adventures and shrugging them off, or concentrating on the artistry of the monologue is limiting. Daisey, when he delivers monologues himself, is all about the activism. He is in that unhappy position of being an activist who spends more time talking about problems that evolving solutions, but if his words are not heeded by an audience – even by critiquing his honesty – he is not to blame. He did something.
It is the complexity of the problem he describes and the lack of easy solutions that explains the apparent political apathy of the majority. The competing versions of the reality of life in the Big Nasty Factory (or Playtime Fun House, as its supporters would have it) make any action not just trivial but possibly wrong. If I decide to boycott Apple, and this then has an impact, I am undermining the workers’ wages. If I don’t, I might be giving my assent to oppression.
Daisey’s use of Apple as an exemplar was cunning: perhaps more than any other company, they have maintained a market presence through brand identity. Their products are pretty solid, too: compared to my almost new PC laptop, the quality of the ancient MacBook I am writing this article is amazing. The ease of use, the durability of the casing: it’s a dream. I just hope thousands of tiny figures haven’t been crippled on the line that made it.
There are probably economic questions about the advisability of the prosperous west relying on manufacture from China, a rising nation which is likely to hold the balance of power in the near future: dependency on a potentially hostile country is not smart geo-politics. But since I don’t understand wealth or economics, I have to place this in my large box of things about which I cannot speak.
In the end, this helplessness in the face of what could be the most blatant oppression of the human spirit, and individual humans, is a refined, justified apathy. The photo-meme of the liberal hippy, who smokes and moans about multi-national corporations is part of an entire industry dedicated to castigating anyone who thinks outside of the dominant paradigm. I spend hours laughing at these memes, but their primary purpose seems to be enforcing an attitude that contradictions destroy any worth in even moral positions.
Instead, I fall back on the standard position of the over-educated yet intellectually timid. I write about it and pretend that passing on the information in yet another format is the equivalent of active resistance. And I add various caveats that encourage other people to do the investigations that I ought to have done.