AMITIAE - Sunday 18 March 2012

Daisey, Daisey, Give us an Answer Do: Truth, Art and Apple

apple and chopsticks


By Graham K. Rogers


There are movies which play with the facts when the truth is shrouded: the writer or director provide an interpretation. Examples of these may be historical dramas, particularly involving ancient history. We also accept Art that is plainly not reality, such as Monet's Impressionist paintings, the works of Picasso, or the work of those like Kandinsky or Jackson Pollock which are not based an any form or reality. Art based on fact needs more careful treatment.

When a performer plays fast and loose with fact, then no amount of falling back on Art for the sake of Art is realistically acceptable. It has become clear in the last few days that the performer, Mike Daisey, lied about what he did and what he saw. The excuse that it was an impression of the reality that exists, does not wash. It never did, although many were willing to accept it (and the many online reports that came after) as true.

Apple and Daisey


A NYTimes story on apparent problems at Foxconn where not only Apple products are made, but those of several other US and Asian corporations, first appeared in late January. This was not the first report. Wired had carried something similar 10 months earlier. A few days after Steve Jobs died in October last year -- a full 3 months before the piece by by Charles Duhigg and David Barboza -- Daisey wrote an Op-ed price in the NYTimes, we are told by Daniel Eran Dilger on AppleInsider, who reports that the Op-ed has now been edited by the newspaper. A complete paragraph has been removed. The Editor has also added a comment concerning the questions that are now being raised.

The NYTimes story in January was also a couple of weeks after Apple had put out its annual examination on its responsibilities with suppliers and (for the first time) a list of its suppliers. It struck me then that Apple was again providing ammunition for anguished reporting, in a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" way. Within days, the wolves were baying, petitions were being signed and protesters were outside the Apple stores.

I looked at the initial NYTimes article in two Cassandra columns: on 27 January 2012 and again on 30 January 2012. In the interim I had also written a specific article on Foxconn, Apple and the New York Times.

Follow ups by some news organisations showed little of the horror that was being suggested in some reports, and while the suicide nets are a sad reminder of the unnecessary deaths, these may have been through boredom, peer reaction, and the desire for parents to receive payouts. It was noted later (but not widely publicised) that the suicide rate was far less than the national average in China. It was also reported that the number of suicides dropped when Foxconn announced that they had stopped paying families of the suicides.

That there were (and perhaps still are) underage workers, may be true, but the chances of finding them at the gates -- 12, 13, 14 -- are unlikely and Apple has been working hard to ensure that these practices cease.

That there were injuries to personnel is true. Look at the history of industry and there have been injuries at countless factories since the production line was introduced. There still are: worldwide. These are reported daily in the press. Apple, like many responsible companies (we may think of Nike here and its reaction to underage workers) is taking steps to ensure that safety and living conditions are improved and that employment of those who are underage is ended.

The ultimate responsibility is that of the factory owner. Most of the comments and reports have focussed on Foxconn, but have made no mention of the cases when Apple has terminated a supplier relationship because of the practices. Even with Foxconn there are problems. A recent report on workers being told not to speak to Apple inspectors, perhaps illustrates the situation a little better. Apple is aware of these problems which are possibly caused by middle-management more concerned about losing face (or their own jobs) than protecting the company.

My antenna were buzzing last week when I picked up a news report on The Street by Brad Hall using information from someone who works near one of the Foxconn factories. Online stories -- the sort that many have been agonising over -- did not match the reality of the workplace. This is similar to the wakeup reports (below) from others on the ground who have been reporting on (and from) China for years.

Apple and Daisey

The Daisey Chain

In a Tweet from "Nikku" retweeted by Jason Snell, editor of MacWorld, there is a link to an image of the handout Mike Daisey was giving to audiences.

It would seem from that, that the monologue may have been inspiration for the NYTimes article -- in terms of, here is a story, let's follow the trail -- and it is clear that Apple is the quarry. As has been shown since the NYTimes article was published, the conditions were not horrendous and were not even really the responsibility of Apple: moral responsibility is debatable, especially with the program Apple has put into play. The reason is not hard to see: all that cash, as I have written a number of times before.

Several of the facts behind Daisey's creation of the monologue were fabricated or outright lies. He also lied about the availability of the translator, who was easily tracked down when someone bothered. It is one thing to create an impression of reality, but another entirely to create a piece of fiction that sets out to misdirect.

It is the tracking down of the translator that was the key to unravelling the Art of Mike Daisey: much of what he has in his monologue is fiction. There have been responsible writers of fiction throughout the history of literature, some of whom have inspired change. We might include Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck. That the conditions these authors wrote about needed change, is certain. That conditions in the Chinese factories need improvement is less clear, especially when one looks at the rest of industry there or at the conditions that many of the workers came from in rural China. While the situation might be a step or three down for a factory worker in the US, for the Chinese employees -- filmed in their thousands running to apply for a job at Foxconn -- this is moving up.

In a Letter from China that appears in the online edition of The New Yorker Magazine, Evan Osnos -- who is in China -- comments on the amazement he and others experienced when reading of the initial claims that were circulating. It was this article more than anything that prompted me to write a separate item for online publication. Up to the time of reading this, I had intended to use the information in the Monday Cassandra column, but Osnos shows that those actually in the country -- on the ground -- provide necessary input (something that Noam Chomsky comments on in an interview) Osnos adds that there was a sort of hands-off approach because of "What if"": What if Daisey really had found something that they had all missed. He didn't.

Fortunately, as Osnos tells us, and many others have reported in the last couple of days, Rob Schmitz of Marketplace did follow up and the retraction from This American Life is at least honest: they "never should have run the story in the first place."

Rob Schmitz's own piece on the tracking down of the translater, Cathy Lee (or Li Guifen) is damning. Meeting with the workers disabled by N-Hexane never happened. Visiting dorm rooms, never happened. She tells Shmitz several times, "No" or "This is not true"; but when confronted by Schmitz, Daisey initially prevaricates: he " wanted to tell a story that captured the totality of [his] trip" but much of what he used -- and includes in the monologue that has been picked up by so many -- was a post hoc, ergo propter hoc, dallying with rumours and innuendo.

Some of the problems certainly existed at one time or another, but Apple has not been ignoring these as is often implied by the monologue and the countless reports we have been reading for months.


There has been much reporting on the conditions in the factories but there are considerable gaps. The criticism is directed at Apple when other companies also rely on the self-same factories for their device production. The criticism is also directed at Apple when the company has been clear about the steps it has put into action concerning the conditions, employment, safety practices and supplier responsibilities. If Cupertino were to be ignoring the accusations, then the beefs would be justified.

Part of this pattern of criticism may be due to the passing of Steve Jobs and the arrival of Tim Cook as CEO, whom some may perceive as weak. As it is his strengths and skills in the supply line that have bolstered Apple in the last few years as much as the company's superb design work, this is also erroneous. He may be less cantankerous than Steve Jobs in public, but the quietness hides much.

We should judge by what we plant, not by the harvest. If a report or a work of Art is intended to influence it should be honest in its content. If it is anything less, it fails.

See Also: Apple, Daisey and Bandwagon Journalism

Apple and Daisey

Graham K. Rogers teaches at the Faculty of Engineering, Mahidol University in Thailand. He wrote in the Bangkok Post, Database supplement on IT subjects. For the last seven years of Database he wrote a column on Apple and Macs.



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