Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Cult of the Complicated and Counterintuitive

David Zax has written a
simplistic piece on Foxconn, ostensibly to explain how other narratives have been too simplistic:

At first glance, the narrative of Foxconn and the iEconomy has appeared to be simple. That narrative–espoused by Mike Daisey and others–had been that Western consumer lust had caused us to turn a blind eye to the apparent exploitation of workers in China, an exploitation that went so far as to lead to a string of suicides. And Apple, went the implied narrative, was failing to do its duty to those in its supply chain, blinded by its greed. 

Right—except that's totally wrong. Adding "and others" is an old journalist trick—it lets you cast a wide net, as now anyone who said anything about Foxconn could be caught in it. Gives you coverage, so then you can say what you want. But since I'm called out specifically, let me address it.

First, I've never said, nor do I believe that "Western consumer lust" had caused anyone to turn a blind eye to anything. We have been turning a blind eye to labor conditions all over the world for decades—it has nothing to do with how much we like our iPhones in particular. There's nothing in my work that indicates that.

I also never, in either AGONY/ECSTASY or the interviews around it, talked about the Foxconn suicides as an endpoint. I was clear about this in every version of the show, and in fact clear about it on its TAL broadcast, wherein we discussed how those suicides matter because they indicate a problem by the nature of their cluster. Mr. Zax could easily know that, and quickly, by doing some light reading.

But I doubt Mr. Zax has actually read AGONY/ECSTASY, and I doubt that he has any real grasp of what I've been saying over the last three years. I do believe he thinks I have been "discredited", which means he can use me to further whatever argument he cares to make, without having to check to see if it actually works or not. I'm used to this. The funny thing is, the same thing would happen before TAL—people will always find the narrative they'd like to tell.

But journalists love the counterintuitive—they hunger for it—so we get to hear from the Wall Street Journal, who went to Shenzhen to discover, unsurprisingly, that many workers want to keep their overtime.

This should surprise exactly no one.

The WSJ and Mr. Zax bury the real center of the story—workers want to keep their overtime because they do not believe or trust that Foxconn will ever pay them equitably. They don't believe that because the plan Apple and Foxconn drew up together for reforms doesn't increase wages to a level where it compensates for the loss of overtime that will happen if Apple actually follows existing Chinese labor law.

And they are right not to trust them.

Instead of telling that narrative, we get another story about how counterintuitively maybe doing more for workers will give them less. People eat that shit up with a spoon, in large part because it confirms our comfortable belief that it would be best if we did nothing.

If Mr. Zax had wanted to really write a counterintuitive piece, he could have just explored the stories about Foxconn that have been systematically cropping up since last spring. Like when, after all the reforms Apple has promised, they were caught using child labor again. Or when they worked to shut down schools and have the students conscripted to work in their factories in the run up to the iPhone 5 launch. Or talk about how Samsung has now clearly been caught using child labor but is facing no real outcry from the tech community.

There are stories still waiting to be told. They are sitting right in front of people. The true counterintuitive tech story is how we refuse to see them, and how those who control our media choose to tell them.