The 1% Better | Technology & Progress

Posted on January 29, 2012


In his book What Technology Wants Kevin Kelly makes an argument that Technology is producing “Deep Progress.” Here is an excerpt from my notes and review:

But the steady stream of good things is relentless as well. …I think there is evidence that on average and over time, the new solutions outweigh the new problems. (74)

There is more good than evil in the world — but not by much – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Unexpectedly, “not much” is all that’s needed when you have the leverage of compound interest at work — which is what the technium is. The world does not need to be perfectly utopian to see progress. …if we create only 1 percent or 2 percent (or even one-tenth of 1 percent) more positive stuff than we destroy, then we have progress. This differential could be so small as to be almost imperceptible, and this may be why progress is not universally acknowledged. When measured against the large-scale imperfections of our society, 1 percent better seems trivial. Yet this tiny, slim, shy discrepancy generates progress when compounded by the ratchet of culture. Over time a few percent “not much better” accumulates into civilization. (74)

So what are we to think about “progress” in light of the recent slew of articles and programs highlighting the complex relationships between workers, human rights, technology, poverty, and politics? Add to that Steven Pinker’s most recent work Better Angels of our Nature proposing that we are living in a less violent era than in all of history. Are there connections? And what are the proper ethics? Is there a better way?

Below are a few of the articles, the full transcript of the program from “This American Life,” and my comments. In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad Made in China

CNET: Apple’s China Problem

CNET: Ep. 1578: Who died to build your iPhone?

CNET: NY Times responds to Apple memo

This American Life: #454: Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory

Transcript: Originally aired 01.06.2012

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

© 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass


Ira Glass: OK, I am holding a new iPhone 4S in my hand. This is the one that you can talk to, and it talks back. It’s a program called Siri. So let’s try this. I’m just going to hold it up to the microphone here and push a button.

Ira Glass: Siri, where do you come from?

Siri Software: I, Siri, was designed by Apple in California.

Ira Glass: Where were you manufactured?

Siri Software: I’m not allowed to say.

Ira Glass: Why?

Siri Software: Good question. Anything else I can do for you?

Ira Glass: Can I say I love especially “I am not allowed to say,” because it implies that Siri somehow knows the answer, but she’s just not allowed to tell me. Which is insane, because she’s a machine. Especially because– flip over the phone– right here on the back it’s printed, assembled in China. Which we all know anyway. It’s not like this is some big secret. We all know that stuff is made in China. Our phones, our computers, our clothes, our household goods.

A couple weeks ago I saw this one-man show where this guy did something on stage I thought was really kind of amazing. He took this fact that we all already know, right, this fact that our stuff is made overseas in maybe not the greatest working conditions, and he made the audience actually feel something about that fact. Which is really quite a trick. You really have to know how to tell a story to be able to pull something like that off.

And I bring this up because today we are excerpting that story here on the radio show. The guy’s name is Mike Daisey, and he makes his living doing monologues on stage. He’s been doing that for years, though you’re going to hear in this story that he turns himself into an amateur reporter during the course of the story, using some investigative techniques once he gets going I think very few reporters would ever try, and finding lots of stuff I hadn’t heard or seen anywhere else, not like this.

From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. Today on our program, Mike Daisey takes us where Siri fears to tread. What you are about to hear is an excerpt of Mike Daisey’s show which he adapted for the radio and performed for a small audience. Here is Mike Daisey.

Act One. Mister Daisey Goes to China.

Mike Daisey: My only hobby is technology. I love technology. I love everything about it. I love looking at technology. I love comparing one piece of technology with another. I love reading rumors about technology that doesn’t exist yet. I love browsing technology. I love buying technology. I love opening technology. Even when it’s in that bubble packaging, I love opening it. I love the smell of a new piece of technology, that sort of burnt PVC smell when you run electricity through it for the first time. I love that.

And of all the kinds of technology that I love in the world, I love the technology that comes from Apple the most, because I am an Apple aficionado. I’m an Apple partisan. I’m an Apple fanboy. I’m a worshiper in the cult of Mac. I have been to the house of Jobs. I have walked the stations of his cross. I have knelt before his throne.

And like so many of you who may be members of this religion with me, you may know that it can be difficult at times to keep the faith. And I have strayed now and again. In the late ’90s I did sleep with a Windows system or two. But who didn’t, really? But for the most part, I have been faithful.

But I do think it’s important to understand where I sit in that hierarchy of Apple geeks for the purposes of our story. And so the best way I know to describe it is to say that I am at the level of geekishness where to relax after performances like this one, sometimes I will go back to my apartment and I will field strip my MacBook Pro into its 43 component pieces. I will clean them with compressed air, and I will put them back together again. It soothes me.

So the truth is I never would have questioned this religion. I never would have looked deeply at this belief system, because it gave me so much pleasure, if it hadn’t been for the pictures. One day I was relaxing on the internet, which for me means reading Macintosh news sites, which I should specify have no actual news in them. They’re instead filled with rumors about what Apple will do next, written exclusively by people who have no goddamn idea what Apple will do next. But for some reason I find this soothing.

So I’m reading one of those news sites when this article gets posted. And it’s about the fact that someone bought an iPhone, and when they got it, it wasn’t blank. It had information on it from inside the factory. And in fact in the camera roll, there were pictures on it from inside the factory. And they posted these pictures into the article. And I looked at these pictures, and they took my breath away.

They’re not very good pictures, you know? They’re just testing that the camera on the phone works. They’re not of anything. But I’ll never forget them. There were four of them. First there was a stack of pallets, wooden pallets stacked up. And the second one was the edge of a conveyor belt. And the third was totally out of focus. It could just be an enormous space. And the fourth was a woman. She doesn’t know her picture’s being taken. She’s looking off in another direction. She’s wearing a clean suit. She has no expression on her face.

And I looked at these pictures, and I downloaded these pictures to my desktop, and I put them in a folder on my desktop. And in the weeks and months that followed, I found myself returning to them again and again almost compulsively. I would mouse over there, and I would fan them across my desktop, and I would look at them. Who are these people?

Because you have to understand, I have dedicated an embarrassing amount of my life to the study of these machines. I’m an amateur, but I’m a dedicated amateur. I understand as best I can how the hardware works, and how the software rests on the hardware. And in all that time, until I saw those pictures, it was only then I realized I had never thought ever in a dedicated way about how they were made.

It’s actually hard now to reconstruct what I did think. I think what I thought is they were made by robots. I got an image in my mind that I now realize I just stole from a 60 Minutes story about Japanese automotive plants. I just copy and pasted that. I was like, pwop, Command-V, pwop. It looks like that, but smaller, because they’re laptops.

I started to think how if this phone has four pictures on it taken by hand in testing, then every iPhone has four pictures on it taken in testing, every iPhone in the world, by hand. I started to think, and that’s always a problem for any religion, the moment when you begin to think.

Shenzhen is a city without history. The people who live there will tell you that, because 31 years ago Shenzhen was a small town. It had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts. The men would fish in the late afternoon. I hear it was lovely.

Today Shenzhen is a city of 14 million people. It is larger than New York City. Depending on how you count it, it’s the third largest city in all of China. It is the place where almost all of your crap comes from.

And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name. Isn’t that remarkable that there’s a city where almost all of our crap comes from, and no one knows its name? I mean, we think we do know where our crap comes from. We’re not ignorant. We think our crap comes from China, right? 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, Kathy. Kathy is fascinating. She’s very small. She has these 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 really get the feeling that if you were to talk to her for long enough, she would actually fall into your chest, and you would 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 15-story-high video walls covered in ugly 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 31 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 was the Shenzhen we find today.

And on the other side of the gates it’s the factory zone. And whew, 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.

We pull onto an elevated expressway. We begin to drive under a silver poison 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 you’re there just a few days [DEEP INHALATION AND EXHALATION] 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’re 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 midair. There’s some rebar sticking out and an 85-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 Kathy 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 told them about my plan, you can actually see them wrestling with just how to express to me just how totally [BLEEP] 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, a single company, makes a staggering amount of the electronics you use every day. They make electronics for Apple, Dell, Nokia, Panasonic, HP, Samsung, Sony, Lenovo, a third of all of it. 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 gate, and then I’m going to get out of the taxi with my translator. And then my plan is to stand at the main gate and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.

And when I tell journalists in Hong Kong about my plan, they say, that’s different. That’s not really how we usually do things in China. That’s really a bad idea. That’s really a bad idea.

But I don’t know what else to do. I have been trying to do things the right way. I have been working with a fixer for the BBC. I can’t get anywhere. All the doors are closed. And you reach a certain point when you realize you may need to obey your natural inclination. And at the end of the day, I am large, I am American, and I am wearing a goddamn Hawaiian shirt. And we are going to the main gates.

But I have to admit, when we get there, my resolve wavers because the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen is enormous. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen has 430,000 workers. That can be a difficult number to conceptualize. I find it’s useful to instead think about how there are more than 20 cafeterias at the plant. And then you just have to understand that workers told me that these cafeterias can hold up to 10,000 people. So now you just need to visualize a cafeteria that seats 10,000 people. I’ll wait.

And I get to the main gate, 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 a Google News alert that popped into my inbox a few weeks earlier about a 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.

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. Week after week, worker after worker has been 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.

It’s shift change, and the workers are coming out of the plant. And I’m standing there under the hot monsoon sun and the gaze of the guards. I feel ridiculous. I look absurd in this landscape. I mean, I wouldn’t talk to me. And Kathy surprises me. Who knew? She turns out to be a spitfire. 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. Before long the guards are like, er? Er? 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 would be great? It would be so great if somebody who uses all this crap we make every day all day long, it would be so great if one of those people came and asked us what was 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 question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces, and then they say something to Kathy. And Kathy says, he says he never thought of that before. Every time, every time.

And the stories are fascinating. I talked 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, but you may have cleaned the screen of this iPhone when it came by you on the line. We’ll never know. And she, 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 13. And I say, 13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re– and she says oh no. And her friends all agree, they don’t really check ages. The outside companies do have inspections, but workers told me Foxconn always knows when there’s going to be an inspection. So what they do then, 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? I’m 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 [BLEEP] 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 14 years old, 13 years old, 12.

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 are all doing? Do they just see what they want to see?

Emboldened by my success at Foxconn, I decide to embark on a new plan. But I’m going to need Kathy’s help if it’s going to work, so I meet with her in the lobby of my hotel. And I say to her, Kathy, 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 the factories you have connections with, and 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. I say, that’s true, I’m not going to buy their products. And she says, you will lie to them. And I say, yes Kathy, 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 when she says, 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, Kathy 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. When 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 lobby is these huge empty Kubrickian spaces, totally empty except for a tiny little desk for the receptionist.

And you cross the huge, empty lobby to the tiny little desk. You introduce yourselves, and then the executives always come down in a gaggle, all together. They pick you up, and you go up together to a conference room.

After the PowerPoint, we head down to the factory floor, industrial spaces with 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 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, but I try to subvert that by locking onto actual faces. 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 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 sound 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. 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 60 Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has 60 Chinese seconds. It’s not like our hour. What’s our hour now, 46 minutes? You know, you have a bathroom break, and you have a smoke break. 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 line, and the lines only move 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 work day in China is eight hours long, and that’s a joke. I never met anyone who had even heard of an eight-hour shift. Everyone I talked to worked 12-hour shifts standard, and often much longer than that, 14 hours a day, 15 hours a day. Sometimes when there’s a hot new gadget coming out– you know what the [BLEEP] I’m talking about– sometimes it pegs up to 16 hours a day. And it just sits there for weeks and months at a time, month after month after month, straight 16’s, sometimes longer than that.

While I’m in-country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift. I wish I could say that’s exceptional, 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, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 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 where 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 Blade Runner/1984 bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They’re making your crap that way today.

When I leave the factory, as 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 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.

I’m at a restaurant in the factory zone, seated at a table with Kathy. 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 these. I’ve hidden 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’ve done all of these things because I am in 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’re 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, each step along the way just making good my intentions, just being clear that I am a storyteller. Just want to hear people’s stories. 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 begin to tell me about the situation on the ground. There is so much turmoil in southern China, so much happening just beneath the surface. 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 I feel provincial saying this, but it’s true. I can’t stop thinking about how young these people are. They don’t even look college age. 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?

And this sort of breaks the narrative, and for a moment they look their age. And they look at each other bashfully, and they say well, we talk a lot. We talk all the time. We have lots of meetings, and we meet at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou. And we exchange papers, and sometimes there are books. And it’s so clear in this moment that they are making this up as they go along.

Then the workers start coming in. They come in in twos and threes and fours. They come in all day. It’s an eight, nine-hour day. I interview all of them. Some of them are in groups.

There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most 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 Dell 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 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We 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 destroy your life. I talk with one woman. She’s very birdlike, very nervous. And she just wants to explain to me how it is that she came to be in a union, because she never thought she would ever 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 Kathy says to her kind of sharply, she says, you should have gone to the labor board. That’s what they’re there for. You should have gone 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 Kathy to translate.

You know, in a fascist country run by thugs, you don’t have to be subtle. You can say exactly what you 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 just column after column after column of names, page after page after page of them. Kathy’s hand trembles as she translates it.

I talk to an older man 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 was too slow, they fired him. Today he works at a woodworking plant. He says he likes it better. He says the people are nicer and the hours are more reasonable. He works about 70 hours a week.

And I ask him what he did when he was at Foxconn, and 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 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 factories in China, they’ve all been packaged up in perfectly minimalist Apple packaging and then shipped across the seas, 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, and 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 Kathy, and Kathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”

It’s a long day. At the end of it I’m packing up everything to go, and Kathy says something to me out of nowhere. She says, do you think these people are mentally ill? Do you think it is possible 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 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 what they are all 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. 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.

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.

Ira Glass: Mike Daisey performing an excerpt adapted for radio from his one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. After the break, what are we supposed to think of all this? That’s in a minute, when Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Act One.

Ira Glass: It’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. Today on our program, Mr. Daisey goes to the Apple factory. We’ve arrived at Act Two of our show, in which our subject is actually Act One of our show. And so Act Two of our show, Act One.

When I saw Mike Daisey perform this story on stage, when I left the theater I had a lot of questions. I mean, he’s not a reporter, and I wondered, did he get it right? And so we’ve actually spent a few weeks checking everything that he says in his show. We invited Apple to come onto the program and respond, and they turned us down. We invited Foxconn to come onto the program and respond, and they also said no. Mike, however, was willing to come in and explain his methods at Foxconn’s gates and in the factories that he visited.

Mike Daisey: I had talked to about 100 workers, a little over 100, over a number of different days.

Ira Glass: Staying outside the gates?

Mike Daisey: Outside the gates. And I went to about 10 different factories when I was posing.

Ira Glass: When you met with the union workers, how many of those did you meet with?

Mike Daisey: There were three of them.

Ira Glass: And then the workers who came through to meet you?

Mike Daisey: God, there were like 25, 30 throughout the course of the day.

Ira Glass: As for Mike’s findings, we have gone through his script and fact checked everything that was checkable. In one instance, we think that his translator may have misunderstood or mistranslated a fact for Mike. He says in his show that workers told him that the cafeterias at Foxconn seat 10,000 people, but based on press accounts, we think that it’s possible that they serve 10,000 people, but seat only 4,000 at a time. Foxconn wouldn’t answer the question for us directly.

When it comes to the suicide rate at Foxconn, there were about 12 suicides at the Shenzhen plant in 2010. It was actually hard to get the exact number. Some people have pointed out that 12 suicides for 400,000 workers is actually much lower than China’s suicide rate as a whole, as China has an unusually high suicide rate of 22 suicides per year per 100,000 people. That would work out to 88 suicides for 400,000 workers. Mike Daisey points out that we don’t actually know if these were the only suicides at Foxconn.

Mike Daisey: And the biggest problem is that it isn’t the quantity, it’s the cluster. If there was any company in America where a sizable chunk of your workforce went up over a period of time, especially close to one another, and killed themselves in the same way very publicly, it would be an enormous news story because it’s far outside the norm.

Ira Glass: Overall, we checked with over a dozen people. Those would be journalists who cover these factories, people who work with the electronics industry in China, activists, labor groups, about the working conditions that Mike Daisey describes in his show, and nobody seemed very surprised by them.

Ian Spaulding: Well unfortunately I think some of these conditions sound actually quite common.

Ira Glass: This is Ian Spaulding, who estimates that he has been in or worked with about 1,000 factories throughout China. The company that he founded and runs, INFACT Global Partners, goes into Chinese factories and helps them meet social responsibility standards that are set by Western companies so those companies are ready when outside auditors come and check on working conditions. He has a staff of 45. They do hundreds of factories a year, including electronics.

Ian Spaulding: There are hours in factories that are often too long, and are excessive, and required over time. Things like cramped quarters can also happen, and repetitive motion injuries can be quite common.

Ira Glass: Another thing that Mike Daisey says that’s disturbing to hear is he says that the companies will deceive the auditors when the auditors come in. Have you seen that?

Ian Spaulding: Yeah, that actually is quite common, and I think many other people have also exposed this problem.

Ira Glass: Now don’t get the wrong impression. Ian Spaulding did have a few quibbles with Mike Daisey. He said that if a worker gets injured and then is fired by his company, he or she can sue the company, and he said that lots of people were doing that these days. He said electronics companies have been improving their handling of toxic chemicals.

And his only real objection to anything that Mike Daisey found had to do with child labor. Ian Spaulding said yes, there definitely is child labor in China, but not at the top tier electronics manufacturers. Other people who we talked to agreed with this. Even people who are critical of Foxconn for all kinds of things agreed with this. He said maybe a stray worker here and there might get in on a borrowed ID, but it is not a widespread problem.

Mike Daisey: Well I don’t know if it’s a big problem. I just know that I saw it.

Ira Glass: Again, Mike Daisey. He says sure, maybe it’s not prevalent.

Mike Daisey: I know that I met people that were there, and I know that I talked to them. I mean, there weren’t very many as a proportion of the total group. I talked to more than 100 people. I met five or six who were underage.

Ira Glass: And they were over the course of days?

Mike Daisey: No, they were together in a group.

Ira Glass: So it’s basically the girl who you describe who deals with the iPhones–

Mike Daisey: Yes.

Ira Glass: –who wipes off your thing, and then her friends?

Mike Daisey: And then some people that were with her. They seemed like savvy kids, honestly.

Ira Glass: The one source that I could find that backs up Mike on this one at least a little bit is Apple. Apple has released a report stating in the year that Mike was in China, 2010, Apple’s own auditors went into 127 facilities around the world that make its products and say they found 91 underage workers. It doesn’t say which facilities the workers were at. The report states that Apple helped install systems to verify ages, educated suppliers on recruiting practices, made them return underage workers to school, and made them pay for the kids’ education. And then it stopped doing business with one supplier that has 42 underage workers and showed no commitment to addressing the problem.

All this research that we did did fill in some interesting details about working conditions at Foxconn that are not in Mike Daisey’s show. There’s an advocacy group called SACOM, which is Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior. They’re based in Hong Kong. And since the suicides at Foxconn in 2010, they have put out three reports investigating conditions at the company. Each report surveyed over 100 Foxconn workers.

And they even had a researcher go undercover and take a job at the Shenzhen plant. Debby Chan Sze Wan is a project manager at SACOM. The surveys that she did of workers depict a company where many employees have to stand all day long.

Debby Chan Sze Wan: Because there’s some research in the industry that workers who stand during work is more efficient than those who sit. And workers, they are regularly yelled by the supervisors. And if they make some mistake then they have to write confession letters, et cetera.

Ira Glass: In your documents, you call this military-style management. Why is that what you call it?

Debby Chan Sze Wan: I think it is the word given by some of the workers.

Ira Glass: According to SACOM’s surveys and reports, the wages at Foxconn are not much more than the Chinese minimum wage. SACOM claims that it’s only with tons of overtime that the money approaches what SACOM calculates is a decent living wage for a family.

But probably the most surprising thing I learned about Foxconn and other Chinese electronics manufacturers from Debby and from Ian Spaulding had to do with the turnover rate. Ian Spaulding says that it could be 10% to 20% turnover per month. He says it’s a huge business problem these days in China.

Ian Spaulding: So you imagine the number of employees that you’re hiring and that leave after one week, two weeks, one month on the job, and you’re constantly trying to re-hire people into those positions.

Ira Glass: With so many workers quitting, why doesn’t that lead to companies changing conditions and raising salaries so they don’t have to go through the hassle of hiring new people?

Ian Spaulding: Well that’s the good news, is it is. Nowadays a lot of people talk about what should companies’ brands, US and European brands, do to make conditions better? And the reality is is that actually what’s proving to be more effective is this bottom-up labor market that’s emerging where employees are speaking with their feet. By leaving a factory, they’re forcing factories to improve wages, improve working conditions, and improving dormitories to make things more attractive for employees.

Ira Glass: When Apple turned down our invitation to come onto today’s radio show, in a rather Orwellian gesture they told us that they are 100% transparent– as they refused to come on the air. They referred us to these reports that they’ve been issuing every year since 2007 on working conditions in the factories that make their products overseas.

And these reports, I have to say, are remarkable documents. You can find these online at Apple’s website. Apple, like many companies, has a code of conduct that suppliers have to commit to before they can do business with them, and each year Apple audits many of the suppliers to make sure that they are complying with the code. If they don’t, then there are corrective action plans, and there’s training, and there’s follow-up audits. It’s very elaborate. And if it all fails, Apple stops buying from the supplier. Or that’s what they claim, anyway.

Apple monitors pretty much all the working conditions that Mike Daisey talks about in his show. The report covering the period that Mike was in China. Talks about what Apple did in the wake of the suicides at Foxconn. They say they did an independent review. They asked for mental health counselors and other changes, which Apple says Foxconn has implemented.

The report also has a whole section on n-hexane, which workers, not from Foxconn but from another plant, told Mike that they were exposed to, and he talked about it on his show. Apple says that it found 137 workers had adverse health effects after exposure to n-hexane. It says that the supplier using the stuff was told to stop using the chemical, and it’s been audited since then to make sure it has happened. Mike Daisey has read these reports.

Mike Daisey: I’m glad Apple does this. It’s unfortunate more companies don’t do it, and I do respect them for doing it. But it doesn’t change the fact that the situation on the ground, even in their own reports, is not good. And then every year the numbers are roughly the same in terms of people who are non-compliant with overtime.

Ira Glass: Yeah, I would say that in the 2010 report, Apple found that only 32% of suppliers that it audited followed its standard about working hours, though Apple doesn’t name the companies that they audited in the report.

Mike Daisey: And I really question the wisdom of that. I think that if they have a serious commitment to changing how things are done in the special economic zone in Shenzhen, then they would name those companies, and then those companies would begin to be held responsible.

Ira Glass: As it is, Daisey says, Apple is basically saying, trust us, we’re taking care of the problems. But without supplier names, nobody can independently verify any of it. Should we feel weird about the computers and phones we use, all the clothes that we wear that are made in faraway factories in Asia under harsh working conditions?

Leaving Mike Daisey aside for a second, that’s the question that all this raises, right? And the mainstream view that you would hear from lots of economists would be no, you shouldn’t feel weird. The famously liberal Paul Krugman, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics and New York Times columnist, has argued that in places like Indonesia, terrible factories, far, far worse than anything you’ve heard about here today, they raised the economy. They made everybody better off. Here’s a quote from Krugman. “It is the indirect and unintended results of the actions of soulless multinationals and rapacious local entrepreneurs. It is not an edifying spectacle, but no matter how base the motives of those involved, the result has been to move hundreds of millions of people from abject poverty to something still awful, but nonetheless significantly better.”

Another person whose support for sweatshops may surprise you is one of Krugman’s colleagues at The New York Times, columnist Nicholas Kristof, who was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for commentary, quote, “for his powerful columns that portrayed suffering among the developing world’s often-forgotten people.” Kristof spent years reporting in Asia. He co-wrote a book about the changes going on in China.

Nicholas Kristof: Well I mean, if you look at Shenzhen, for example, in Guangdong where Foxconn is, then there’s no doubt that it’s been a tremendous benefit, not only to southern China but indeed to much of Asia. It created massive employment opportunities, especially for young women, who frankly didn’t have a lot of alternatives. That tended to give women more clout within families, within the community.

My wife’s ancestral village is in southern China, not too far from Foxconn. And people in that village went from a really grim kind of lifestyle, basically in the rice paddies. And for them, and indeed for many Chinese, the grimness of factories like Foxconn was better than the grimness of rice paddies.

Ira Glass: There’s a passage of your own writing that we emailed you before you came in this morning. Did you get that?

Nicholas Kristof: Yeah, I did.

Ira Glass: Can I ask you to read it?

Nicholas Kristof: Sure, absolutely.

Ira Glass: So this is from a New York Times Magazine article that you wrote in 2000, and the article was called “Two Cheers for Sweatshops.”

Nicholas Kristof: 14 years ago we moved to Asia and began reporting there. Like most Westerners, we arrived in the region outraged at sweatshops. In time though, we came to accept the view supported by most Asians. In the years since our first conversations there, we’ve returned many times to Dongguan and the surrounding towns and seen the transformation. Wages have risen from about $50 a month to $250 a month or more today. Factory conditions have improved as businesses have scrambled to attract and keep the best laborers. A private housing market has emerged. A hint of a middle class has appeared, as has China’s closest thing to a Western-style independent newspaper, Southern Weekend.

Ira Glass: So you’re saying sweatshops are bad, but we should feel OK about it?

Nicholas Kristof: Well, it’s a very awkward thing to defend sweatshops, if you will. I mean, I think it’s useful to be reminded about how grim the conditions are. But again, I just think that if you try to think how you can fight poverty most effectively, and what has fought it within China, then I think sweatshops are a key part of that answer.

Ira Glass: For that, Mike Daisey says sure, he’s heard that argument, sweatshops are just a phase poor countries go through, a phase that all the industrialized countries already went through. But he says, even given that, don’t we have some basic obligation as outsiders coming in, to treat the workers the way that our country has already agreed that workers should be treated?

Mike Daisey: It may be true that over the long span of time in 100 years, people will look back and be happy about how things went. But I don’t think it’s as clean as that. I just want basic labor protections for people. That’s entirely compatible with everything that has been flourishing in Shenzhen. It’s absolutely compatible to have everything work as it has, but also people are rotated in their factories. It’s entirely compatible to have things work as they are now, but there are also independent people outside of individual corporations that inspect without announcement to see that basic labor standards are covered.

It’s a really basic thing. It’s a basic thing that we fought for in this country. It took 100 years of labor struggles to get to a place where that happened for most workers. Then we exported those jobs overseas, and we didn’t send the protections with them. And it’s not right.

Ira Glass: Mike Daisey. His one-man show about Apple is going back on stage this month in New York at the Public Theater. The full show has this entire other story line about Steve Jobs that you will have to buy a theater ticket if you want to hear.



Ira Glass: Well our program was produced today, as always, entirely on Apple computers by Brian Reed and myself with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Miki Meek and Matt Kielty. Scouting help from Elna Baker. Music help from [? Damian Gray, ?] from Rob [? Geddes. ?]


Our website, where we have links to information on Apple and on Foxconn, A note to our Australian listeners– yes, we are on the radio in Australia. I will be in Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane this month, and there are still tickets available.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. Torey, how much money do you make anyway?

Siri Software: I’m not allowed to say.

Ira Glass: And how old are you exactly?

Siri Software: Good question. Anything else I can do for you?

Ira Glass: I’m Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer: PRI, Public Radio International.

© 2012 Chicago Public Media & Ira Glass

— VIA —

It’s complicated. But it’s simple.

If people saw what kind of life workers lived before they found a job at Foxconn, they would come to an opposite conclusion of this story: that Apple is such a philanthropist. — Zhengchu1982

There are so many intricacies, circumstances, contexts, realities–almost as many as there are people on this planet–which make it virtually impossible to adhere to any objective statements about what is “good” and what is “right.” A friend of mine continually argues the point that these workers are no doubt suffering and being taken advantage of, but their situation is far better than if they had no job to begin with. This is a bit of what Kristof alludes to, as well as other articles. Plus, the fact that those workers choose their labors is telling in that they are NOT choosing something else. As long as choice is involved, then we can gauge a bit of the cost/benefit analysis of people’s decision making. (On that note, it does seem good to see that many workers are now choosing to leave, which is, de facto, making factories progress in their conditions.)

In addition, the delicate balance between consumer and production is more ethereal than numerical, and we must understand that the variegated demands in a free-market society are complicated, and cyclical. As demands for products increase, and demands for lower costs continue, so demanding pressures on supply chains are imposed. However, supply chains would not have existence, or the potential to be profitable, if they did not adhere to practices that help to meet those exact demands. Economics, as we know, has nothing to do with numbers, but more to do with human behavior, psychology, and bias.

So, it’s complicated.

But it’s also simple.

All of this can be easily addressed if we simply do two things: 1) listen, and 2) act. The vast majority of what appalls people is that Apple “knew” but did not “act.” Consumers may read articles like this, but will then go and buy products without leaning on companies to fix the problems. Managers and Corporates will hear the complaints of workers, but dismiss them. Governments will not impose regulations, which is another complicated problem in-and-of itself.

But it’s doable. This isn’t about understanding. It really is about acting. It’s not about intellectual discernment. It’s about collective will.

Regarding the 1% better? I agree that collectively, and objectively one could make that statement of value. However, I would argue that to be human is to never objectify another human being or a community of humans. The idea that a 1% better for the collective whole is all we need to ensure that progress is being paved is shameful to those of us who dismiss the 99% who suffer for the sake of that very progress — a true ethical irony. This is not the way of being human. This is precisely the definition of inhumane. We can, and we must do better.

This is not to say that China’s factories must be up to “American” standards. As was mentioned, our current standards took 100 years to evolve. It is to say that Americans ought to listen very closely to what would fully humanize conditions for Chinese workers, and commit wholeheartedly towards achieving those standards generously and compassionately. Listen. Act. For if technology’s capacity can double every 18 months (according to Moore’s Law), there is no reason that human standards cannot follow the same trajectory. Thought about in this way, 1% better to human flourishing, in a world where 100% better happens every 18 months to machinery, means that the exact opposite of progress is happening in our world.

Imagine what would happen if our human ethics advanced in the same way mechanical capacity advanced. Just imagine.

Posted in: Culture, Technology