The Human Cost of Apple's Magic Gadgets

It's a funny time in media history when our performers are the ones doing the real reporting. (Jon Stewart has my vote in the 2012!)

Case in point: Compare the coverage of Foxconn in performer Mike Daisey's one-man show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" with Wired Magazine's treatment of the same subject, which ran as their March cover story. Daisey's show is touring the country -- first in Berkeley, then DC, and running April 22-May 22 in Seattle.

Chances are, the computer you're reading this post on was made in Shenzhen, China. And if it's an Apple, it was made at Foxconn. Shenzhen is a special economic zone where China's already lax labor laws don't apply. Foxconn alone -- just one company in Shenzhen -- makes over half of our electronics.

For his one-man show, Daisey took a reporting trip to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen to find out how his beloved Apple products were made and talked to hundreds of factory workers. He claims workers lived in 10x12 cement cubes with up to "15 beds stacked up on top of each other." In our radio interview with Daisey, he says he "met a huge number of people with permanent nerve damage," from the toxic chemicals used to clean Apple touch screens, for which there's no compensation.

Now contrast this with Wired's reporting. The feature story doesn't include one quote from an actual Foxconn worker and more surprisingly, the writer downplays actual undercover reports of forced overtime.

For example, the reporter who worked undercover in Foxconn's factory and for nearly a month "experienced dreadful conditions... churning out iPods, iPads, and iPhones for Apple nonstop." This is according to Gizmodo writer Chris Chang.

Wired is like, really? The Public Relations rep didn't show me those kinds of conditions.

Going out on a limb here, it seems like Wired writer Joel Johnson met with Foxconn PR reps, was given a tour of the "campus" and, armed with lots of glossy brochures about the congeniality of life on the "Foxconn campus," wrote his story.

I don't blame Johnson -- he's a gadget reviewer for God's sake! You know the guys whose careers rely on staying in Apple's good graces? It's just troubling that Wired chose to send someone, to write a kind of exposé piece, who gets free swag from the companies he's exposing.

Johnson's not the kind of reporter who's well positioned to take on Apple if he expects to get a first look at the iPad 3 that may or may not come out this fall. His last iPad review was, well, gushing. Johnson seems to see it as progress that Foxconn is opening up company stores where the workers can purchase the gadgets they're making.

Performer Mike Daisey, on the other hand, paints Foxconn and all of Shenzhen as a kind of dystopic experiment in what happens when all restrictions on corporations are lifted. And with the constant drumbeat to deregulate here in the U.S., Americans should watch this "experiment" closely.

Foxconn, Daisey says, sees people as parts of a machine; "when they wear out, we throw them away." He claims someone died working a 32 hour shift while he was in Shenzhen and that that happens "all the time."

The Foxconn "campus," as Johnson calls it, has been dubbed "Foxconn City." It's a manufacturing plant with 300,000 -- to 450,000 workers, according to Wikipedia. Wiki also says it covers about 1.16 square miles and "includes 15 factories, a hospital, bank, grocery store." But scariest of all, it's got its own television network called "Foxconn TV."

Yikes. Just the name alone is creepy -- it would be like having a McDonalds City with a population the size of Atlanta where all your hamburgers are made in forced 32-hour shifts and then shipped. Hey, maybe that day's coming. I can just hear the rationale -- you don't want the price of Happy Meals to go up, do you? That'll hurt the economy!