Friday, July 23, 2010

The Ecstasy and Agony of Steve Jobs... Or What should I do with my iPhone?

Employees work on the assembly line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg
This is a cross post between My Theatre Ramblings and My Random Ramblings.

I recently had an opportunity to purchase cheap seats to the World Premier Preview of Woolly Mammoth’s Theatre Company’s: The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, written and performed by Mike Daisey.

I didn’t know what to expect when I read the Tweet Seat call for $10 tickets, but I knew that I wanted to go (I’ll go to any cheap seat theatre). Due to the timing of the tweet and my commute to Chinatown, I had just made it to the theatre about three minutes before curtain, when I found out there wasn’t an intermission. I was then expecting a 60 – 90 minute show.

On stage sat a frosted glass top desk and a glass of water. Out comes Daisey to a round of applause. With an outline to guide him, Daisey began telling us the story of his trip to China. He would alternate “chapters” of the story in China with the story of Steve Jobs and the Apple Computer.

I started taking notes on the story and theatrical notes as I normally do when reviewing a show, but I was quickly enthralled! When Daisey was talking about his trip to China, he was recounting his investigating reporting of trying to visit Foxconn – a giant manufacturing plant in the city of Shenzhen that produces hundreds of different electronics including Apple iPhones, iPads, Intel motherboards, Dell computers, Hewlett-Packer computers, Wiis, Playstations, Xboxes, Kindles and dozens of other cell phones. Daisey, a Mac junkie since the Apple II came out in the late 70’s, had decided to visit the plant that created some of his favorite products, for recently this plant is in the middle of a suicide plague.

Daisey’s story telling was amazing! I couldn’t believe that an actor, not a journalist, was scooping the story. Daisey met dozens of people who were willing to talk to him about the sweat shop like factories that they were working in, making just pennies a day (about $131^1 (American - USD) a month: a quick look up of the purchasing power parity^2 shows that in China this is about equivalent to a monthly income of $483^3).

One stand out story was about a man who had lost a hand in the factory line while making iPads. Daisey showed the man his iPad and the man, using his injured arm to swipe the screen, called it magic. According to Daisey, all completed iPads are shipping out of Shenzhen.

Daisey told a story of line workers forced to stand for hours on end; unable to speak, unable to move, just doing the same repetitive action over and over again with only one “break” in sight: “accidentally” dropping a item. The relief a line worker would have during the new movement was well worth the verbal assault they would receive from their superiors for slowing down production. The financial group Bloomsberg report similar findings “About 80 percent of the front-line production employees work standing up, some for 12 hours a day for six days a week… ‘We get yelled at all the time. It’s very tough around here’[ –Ah Wei, factory worker] ” (Wong^4).

Ironically, this reminded me of Walt Disney! During production of Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Fantasia Walt Disney ran the Ink and Paint department very similarly. The women, underpaid compared to their male counterparts, were working in silence, standing around doing their job:

We tried to keep from talking,” says Yuba—since speed and accuracy were closely monitored. (Ruthie confessed she would sometimes drop her board on the floor “just so it would make noise.”) (Kohn^5)

Of course, this was a different time, and a different situation, but I couldn’t help draw the parallel between Disney and Foxconn’s practices. However, they span over 80 years and are oceans away. During the 20’s and 30’s in America, women were still fighting to get jobs and were treated like second-class workers. In modern Shenzhen, all workers are looked at as second-class and are easily replaceable with the hundreds of other people waiting in line to get a job. This however, hasn’t stopped 11 people from jumping off the roof of their dormitories.

Long days and little pay. I recently spent 12 hours at camp (I arrived at 7:30 to enjoy a leisure hour of prepping and catching up on my internet sites. I talked with a friend until about 9:00 when I began teaching; I took a bathroom break sometime between classes; taught two more classes; ate lunch with friends. Then I performed in a talent show; taught a couple more classes; had an hour to relax before my shows began; had one show; squeezed in a dinner; had two more shows; watched the dance concert and finally went home). That was my twelve-hour day. A twelve-hour day for a worker at Foxconn: arrive at 9, work two hours; 10 minute break (no talking); work two hours; 10 minute break; etc. Can I truly complain about my twelve-hour day when I had a plethora of down time and more interaction between peers and students than I could count?

For most of Daisey’s performance I kept questioning: “What can I do?” Would ditching my iphone make a stance? But what product would I use instead? If it’s not made by Foxconn, it’s most likely made by another factory in Shenzhen or in another factory with horrible human rights practices.

Three hours later, I couldn’t believe it was over! Daisey took me and the rest of the audience on a journey that I don’t think I can ever return from. As I sit here and type this on my iBook, with my iPad and iPhone right next to me, I can’t help but wonder what the costs of these devices truly is. I think I would happily pay more, knowing that every person along the way was treated like a human!

Please go check out this show when it returns to Woolly Mammoth from March 21 through April 10, 2011. Tickets can be purchased here. Also check out Daisey’s blog. As his monologue changes from performance to performance (for it is just spoken from an outline), I can’t wait to go back during the regular run to see what it has turned into!

^1 Pay rate found at 9 to 5 Mac
^2 Purchasing Power Parity is the idea that although an exchange rate between money is how much the money is worth in gold, it does not take into account the price of goods and services. So if $1.00 USD can buy you a loaf of bread, and 3.69 Yuan buys you that same loaf of bread, then the PPP between USD and Yuan is 3.69 (despite the fact that 1 USD would buy you 7 Yuan^2a)
^2a Conversion rate: Coinmill
^3 Purchasing power parity was figured by taking the monthly income ($131) and mutilplying that by the PPP of the yuan 3.69 per USD. Wiki Answers: What is the PPP in China?
^4 Wong, Stephanie; Lie, John; and Culpan, Tim; Bloomberg: IPhone Workers Say `Meaningless' Life Sparks Suicides; June 2, 2010
^5 Kohn, Patricia; Vanity Fair: Coloring the Kingdom; March 2010

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