Tuesday, November 20, 2012

CNET has ranked my imagination as one of the Tech Turkeys of 2012, in one of those BuzzFeed-style roundups journalism sites use to troll for clicks these days.

Setting style aside, it's interesting to look at what they actually say.


There are only two stories in the TAL retraction that this is referring to: one is about the worker I spoke with who had a maimed hand, and the other was my account of speaking with workers at the gates of Foxconn.

No one disputes that I spoke with a worker with a damaged hand at the labor meetings I went to. What was disputed was that he had been injured working at Foxconn.

Is his story less heartbreaking because we aren't sure which kind of machinery mauled his hand, after which he received no medical support, healed incorrectly, and then was fired from his job after being too slow?

Similarly, no one disputes that I met with workers at the gates of Foxconn, nor does anyone contest the facts of what that work is like in terms of its incredibly long hours, monotony, and conditions.

Is it less heartbreaking because the girl may have been two years older? Three years? How do we rate our empathy?

At what point do we blame the worker? At the moment they are an adult in our eyes? At the moment the clock strikes, at the second they are legal to work in the country they live in, is the story then about how they should have known better, because they are, after all, adults?

Of course, some would say that what makes the story not heartbreaking is my perfidy—since they do not trust me as a narrator.

On the surface this makes sense. But the encounter with the worker with the damaged hand has been fact checked, and the details that remain aren't contested. Even if they were, it's an open book that hideous injuries like these are incredibly common throughout the SEZ. And there are mountains of evidence which make clear what it is like to be a worker at Foxconn.

What is most likely is that clinging to the idea that I am untrustworthy is a convenient excuse for people who would rather not think about something like their labor.

Here is a succinct web graphic about this very idea:


I won't comment on the overall sentiment of this graphic, beyond the obvious: that Gene Wilder was a genius.

The CNET piece ends with:


This is rich.

First, to some degree I'm sympathetic. In my apology I specifically talked about my concerns for hard-working labor journalists where my work may have made their jobs more difficult. That was a real and valid concern.

It's also clear, eight months on, that, thankfully, this turned out to be bullshit.

People don't have a problem believing the conditions in Foxconn and across the Special Economic Zone—they've been amply documented for years and years by NGOs and journalists.

If there's been a gap, it hasn't ever been believability. It's been empathy.

And chief among those not caring are the journalists—those in the tech industry, and those who edit and control what stories get inches coming from foreign correspondents.

The energy and attention the TAL retraction threw on the already blazing fire about Apple only heightened the scrutiny—and in the light it is now clear that Foxconn uses forced labor, still uses child labor, and shows few signs of sincere reform. The mountain of evidence was tall before I ever showed up, and now it's even taller—as I say in AGONY/ECSTASY, the idea that this was even ever "news" is ludicrous. We always knew.

Having now spoken with workers rights organizations who work directly on these issues, it is clear that today they are in a far different and better place than they were a year ago—one director told me they were fifteen or twenty years ahead. They have access to new visibility, new fundraising opportunities, to a whole new level that was impossible before.

Chinese labor has been talked about on Saturday Night Live, and in the presidential debates. When is the last time a labor issue of any kind asserted itself in the popular culture?

Everyone knows who Foxconn is now, and Apple's complicity with them. And given that they've been now caught, after pledging reforms, to still using child labor and forced student labor, the shoe still sadly fits perfectly.

Engadget did live updates of riots at Foxconn, culling data from Weibo. CNET itself sent Jay Greene to Shenzhen and beyond to do serious journalism. On the mainstream side, now that editors can see that there is interest in heat in Chinese labor, there has been a huge jump in the number of stories about conditions in China.

The funny thing is that CNET's comment is a double-edged sword. It can be pointed at me, certainly—in their belief, I forced the journalists to work at least twice as hard.

In a world where we believe in the myth of objective journalism and the perfectly informed public, that does sound like a bummer. No one wants to make the purveyors of truth have to work any harder—after all, without them we wouldn't know what to think.

But in the universe of the actual, in light of historical inequities in labor reporting, making journalists work harder to actually get stories about labor in front of the eyes of the public doesn't sound like that terrible a charge.

And if you accept that on its face—when were they going to work this hard? And where was the empathy going to come from, that makes a story leap from the pages to actually resonate? After all, this has happened before—Apple responded to labor issues when people were writing stories about them back in 2006. When there was nothing but journalism alone, the story rose up and died without breaking the surface of our consciousness.

Whether you like how we got here or not, I'm asking—if there had been nothing else, would we even be where we are now?