Friday, July 27, 2012

Today a video is making the rounds of the web—it's a piece of cam test footage from inside an HP production line, accidentally left on the laptop so that it made it through to the end user. This is very similar to the pictures on iPhones I talk about in AGONY/ECSTASY, though this is the first piece of video I've seen.

The video is remarkable because of the way it comes to us, and the raw details are what make it compelling: the chatter of workers, the floating bits of opera music overheard, the stretching as workers wait for new devices to arrive on the assembly line.

When I watch TV, I see car ads that exalt the American auto worker, and I've been watching those commercials since I was a child, so I have a vague sense of how those are made and that they are made by actual humans (though probably with a lot less American flags and waving fields of grain).

But how our electronic devices are made has been largely invisible. Watching even a few moments reminds me intensely of visiting factories in Shenzhen in 2010.

What's interesting is how video can be used to frame labor discussions, because we feel like by watching a clip we then know the totality of their experience. (In fact, a link to this clip at the popular tech site Gizmodo claims that if you wondered what life is like inside a computer factory, watching it will "answer all your questions.”)

But while video of a production line can offer an illuminating glimpse, it doesn't show us how long shifts are, what the pay is, whether it is delivered equitably, what happens when workers are reprimanded—basically, everything that has shown itself to be points of intense tension at Foxconn and other manufacturing plants.

This reminds me of Rob Schmitz's video of a workers assembling iPads:

Schmitz used the access Apple granted him to make a great utopian video—workers are shown diligently building iPads, testing them, putting them together by hand in some steps, manipulating machines to insert batteries in others.

The shots are chosen and composed for maximum visual variety and style. The production line looks marvelous and a model of efficiency. It's fascinating to compare the unedited, unvarnished webcam video with the one composed and edited by Marketplace in terms of style, substance, and what kind of messaging is being communicated.

What is not apparent in either video is the context, though in one case it's more egregious than the other. The webcam video, by its nature, doesn't tell a story outside its frame--we do not know what these workers' conditions are, but we get as close as we can to an unfiltered glimpse of what we can literally see.

The context of the Marketplace video is more complex. It was posted just two weeks after the Fair Labor Association issued a devastating audit of Foxconn's systems, finding rampant overtime far beyond legal limits, underpaying of workers, unsafe work conditions, worker intimidation, attempts to deceive the auditors, and a litany of abuses far and wide.

The Marketplace video never mentions this.

It also never mentions that Mr. Schmitz was granted access to the iPad line by Apple after his pieces about me were aired—access granted to almost no other news organizations.

The Marketplace video never mentions this, either.

This access allowed Apple to reward Schmitz, and Schmitz created a piece that is absolutely factually accurate…but damningly omits the FLA reports, and the context and history of labor at Foxconn. In a brazen whitewashing, if one watched the video alone, one would have no idea that there had ever been labor issues at Foxconn.

Mr. Schmitz and Marketplace's video has been viewed by nearly two million people. It is embedded on tech sites across the web, which have adopted its narrative wholesale, despite ample reportage from other journalists.

Where I've fallen short is a matter of public record. I've reformed my work, and I'm proud of the story it tells. I'm a storyteller, and I'm good at my job.

Mr. Schmitz and Marketplace are storytellers, too. They have crafted a narrative, and it's important to see what is in the frame, and what has been omitted.