Tag Archives: Apple

Media and True Stories

When I was in grad school in Scotland, I used to tell my classmates that if they wanted to understand the culture of the United States, they should listen to the podcasts from two radio shows: A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor; and This American Life with Ira Glass. The former is an old-fashioned radio variety show that captures the essence of that quirky, somewhat innocent, but deeply hospitable, traditional culture of the heartland. The latter captures the stories of everyday Americans who are struggling through disenchantment to find a new source of meaning, goodness, beauty, and truth. By listening to the two, one can get a sense of the dual nature of American culture, and the tensions that currently animate it.

This American LifeI still listen to both programs, and this week’s show on This American Life was electrifying. It was a little unusual, in that the whole show was devoted to a retraction of a story they had previously aired about the working conditions at the Chinese factories that build Apple’s most beloved gadgets. The original story was told by Mike Daisey, an actor and activist who wrote the monologue The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which Daisey purportedly describes his own experiences of visiting these factories and talking with the workers.

The monologue, as well as the story he told on This American Life, lays out a number of shocking accusations: at the gates of the infamous Foxconn factory, he talked with a group of underaged workers who were 12-14 years old; he met with workers who had been poisoned by n-hexane, a powerful neurotoxin that is used to clean iPhone screens; he showed an iPad to a man who’s hand had been destroyed by the machine used to make the case; he saw the inside of worker dormitories that had bunk beds stacked to the ceiling and cameras that observed their every move; and he saw the guards at the factory gates brandishing guns to keep prying eyes away. All of this was capped off with the chilling rhetorical question: “do you really think that Apple doesn’t know?”

Unfortunately for Mr Daisey, the Chinese correspondent for the popular business and finance show Marketplace, Rob Schmitz, heard this story and had a hard time reconciling these claims with what he had observed and reported on over the last few years. Yes, Apple’s Chinese suppliers had routinely violated Apple’s own labor practice standards, the working conditions are notoriously harsh, and there had been a few terrible accidents, including the n-hexane poisoning. But several of the details in Daisey’s story just didn’t seem probable. Only the police and military are allowed to have guns in China, so corporate security guards brandishing firearms would be highly unlikely, and Schmitz had never seen such a thing before. There have been problems with underage workers in Chinese factories, but Apple in particular had been fairly aggressive in stopping that practice at their suppliers, and it would highly unlikely for an underage worker to openly admit to being so to a strange American with a Chinese interpreter.

After some quick searching, Schmitz found the interpreter that Daisey used while in China. Schmitz sent her Daisey’s monologue and asked her if she could corroborate the details. She replied that most of the details were at least exaggerated, if not completely fabricated. They had gone to the gates of Foxconn, but didn’t encounter any underage workers. They had met some disgruntled employees who were trying to form an illegal union, but there were only a couple of workers there, and none of them had the injuries he described. The guards at the gates did not have guns, and Daisey was never allowed in the dormitories, so he couldn’t have known what they looked like.

Mike DaiseySchmitz and Ira Glass confronted Daisey about all of this, and to their dismay, Daisey admitted to representing various stories he had heard only second-hand as if he had seen or heard them himself. His reasoning was that it was all “true” and that he represented these events that way for theatrical purposes. He thought that relaying his experiences accurately would “unpack the complexities” in such a way that it would make the narrative arc more confusing and less effective.

The confrontation between Schmitz, Glass, and Daisey was certainly worth listening to, but the part of the show that I found most interesting was how Glass tried to grapple with Daisey’s claims that his story could be considered “true” in a theatrical context, but not in a journalistic one. Daisey admitted that he took “a few shortcuts in my pasion to be heard” but that he was proud of his use of “the tools of the theater and memoir to achieve [the story’s] dramatic arc…because it made you care, Ira.”

In other words, Daisey is claiming that a “true” story in the theater is one that makes you care, not one that is accurate in a literal sense. Daisey then expressed regret because he brought that story into a journalistic context, a context where what counts as a “true” story is significantly different. Exasperated by this, Glass chided Daisey that he was kidding himself if he thought that his audience understood this distinction. Glass himself attended the show and concluded “I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.”

All of this raises an interesting question: how, if at all, does a medium affect what is considered a “true” story? (The term ‘medium’ is notoriously slippery, but I’m using it here in the same sense that Daisey was using the term ‘context’.) Can a story be true in the medium of theater, and then become less or untrue when it is moved to the medium of journalism? Does what counts as a true story differ between journalism and history? Do you assay the truth of a story differently when you hear it in the theater, on film, in journalistic print, or in academic discourse?

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The Artistry and Engineering of Steve Jobs

Steve JobsIn response to the death of Steve Jobs earlier this week, there has been a virtual flood of great writing reflecting on the man himself, his accomplishments, or his influence on authors’ personal lives. I’ve enjoyed reading all this, but the one source that has caught my attention the most is an oral history interview that Steve Jobs did with the Smithsonian back in 1995.

Although the interview was conducted while he was at NeXT (after he had been forced out of Apple and before he returned), Jobs was asked to reflect a little on his time at Apple. He started by describing what it was like to work there in the early years:

Apple was this incredible journey. I mean we did some amazing things there. The thing that bound us together at Apple was the ability to make things that were going to change the world. That was very important. We were all pretty young. The average age in the company was mid-to-late twenties. Hardly anybody had families at the beginning and we all worked like maniacs and the greatest joy was that we felt we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics. Something important that would last, that people contributed to and then could give to more people; the amplification factor was very large.

Notice how he described the way they thought about what they were doing: “…we felt like we were fashioning collective works of art much like twentieth century physics.” For Jobs, there was little distinction between building computers, practicing science, and creating art. The interviewer picked up on this, and asked him to explain why he used the word ‘art’ instead of ‘engineering’. Jobs replied:

I actually think there’s actually very little distinction between an artist and a scientist or engineer of the highest calibre. I’ve never had a distinction in my mind between those two types of people. They’ve just been to me people who pursue different paths but basically kind of headed to the same goal which is to express something of what they perceive to be the truth around them so that others can benefit by it.

The interviewer then tried to clarify this by asking if “the artistry is in the elegance of the solution, like chess playing or mathematics?” Jobs disagreed, saying it was more profound than that:

No. I think the artistry is in having an insight into what one sees around them. Generally putting things together in a way no one else has before and finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight that makes them feel a certain way or allows them to do a certain thing. I think that a lot of the folks on the Macintosh team were capable of doing that and did exactly that. If you study these people a little bit more what you’ll find is that in this particular time, in the 70’s and the 80’s the best people in computers would have normally been poets and writers and musicians. Almost all of them were musicians. A lot of them were poets on the side. They went into computers because it was so compelling. It was fresh and new. It was a new medium of expression for their creative talents. The feelings and the passion that people put into it were completely indistinguishable from a poet or a painter. Many of the people were introspective, inward people who expressed how they felt about other people or the rest of humanity in general into their work, work that other people would use. People put a lot of love into these products, and a lot of expression of their appreciation came to these things. It’s hard to explain.

It may be hard to explain, but anyone who has worked in the computer industry knows exactly what Jobs is talking about. When I started writing software for a living in 1991, I too was struck by how many of my coworkers were musicians, or artists in some other field. We had all gotten into computers not because we had always been nerdy, engineering types, but because we saw the inherent creativity involved in designing and building software, and the amazing flexibility of the computer as an creative platform.

What Jobs is getting at here is the deep link between art and craft, a link that is embedded in the very word we use to describe all that cool stuff that Apple made: ‘technology’. As I described in an earlier post, the greek root of the word is typically translated as art or craft, so the literal meaning of technology is just “the study of art or craft.” In English we use the term ‘artist’ to describe someone who makes decorative things and ‘artisan’ to describe someone who makes practical things, but people like Jobs and his employees at Apple demonstrated just how blurry and permeable that distinction really is.

In fact, artists and artisans are really doing the same thing, just in different ways: they develop “an insight into what [they see] around them” and then put “things together in a way no one else has before…finding a way to express that to other people who don’t have that insight so they can get some of the advantage of that insight….”

My first computer was an Apple IIe, and I write this now on an iMac. In between I’ve used many different kinds of computers and operating systems, all of which were the products of talented artist-engineers. But Steve Jobs and the “collective works of art” he inspired and directed have probably had the most profound impact on my life. That first Apple IIe sparked my imagination and drew me into a new creative world that changed the course of my life.

Thanks Steve. Rest in Peace.