Friday, March 16, 2012

Apple, Mike Daisey's artistic liberties, and the moral ethic

In case you hadn't yet seen it, one of the big news stories today is about NPR's This American Life retracting a story they ran this last January about award-winning monologist Mike Daisey's piece on the manufacturing conditions at China's Foxconn plant. Mike Daisey's piece focused on Apple's iPhone but that same plant manufactures an incredible array of products for a number of the world's largest electronics manufacturers. The real dilemma this piece raised, in my mind, was that we (as consumers) need to be (more) concerned about how the products we purchase are being manufactured, specifically from the ethical and moral perspectives of working/manufacturing conditions at these plants.

I continually think about these sorts of things for nearly everything I purchase. But I was particularly moved by this episode of This American Life and wrote a blog piece about it (Origins and the Moral Ethic). An Apple investigator had doubts about some of Mike Daisey's facts in his monologue and a followup piece that ran on ABC's Nightline. Today, Mashable ran a great article about the brouhaha complete with This American Life's retraction letter. In Mashable's post, they asked the question, 
"Does this change the way you think about whether or not Apple products are ethically made?"
My response? 

Not at all.

While it saddens me that Mike Daisey took certain theatrical liberties in the making of his story then passed them off as truths to journalists, and This American Life aired the episode without fully vetting the truths, the fact of the matter remains that Apple and many other electronics manufacturers have obligations (beyond the Almighty Dollar) to ensuring ethical working conditions that are not harmful to people. That Foxconn has serious operational and ethical hurdles to overcome has been well-established (some of the better stories, here, here, and ABC's video piece here).

But in the end, people still need to care about where their products come from. Not just in terms of a fair workplace for people, but also about where the raw materials are sourced and the implications for the people (and other organisms) living in the area.

Sadly, I fear too many people will skim a snippet of this melee without digging deeper (or worse, take a skewed Fox [Faux?] News report of it), and dismiss any obligation they feel to better understanding (and taking responsibility for) where their electronics come from.

UPDATE: 3/18/12

As I was listening to today's (3/18) This American Life episode (you can listen to the podcast, here) in which Ira addresses the inconsistencies (lies, half-truths and complexities?) of Mike Daisey's original story, I couldn't help but feel bad for Mike. Not because he lied to Ira and those vetting the story (that part was, in my view, inexcusable) and got caught, but because the very thing Mike sincerely hoped his original theatrical piece would do - make people care about their buying choices and the impacts those choices have on others - took such a large negative turn. Yes, it was Mike's own doing. And it didn't help that today's interview piece with Ira seemed to lambast him (arguably justified) and undermine most, if not all of, Mike's credibility.

But I was finally (finally!) heartened in the closing minutes of the TAL piece. Why? In Ira's discussions with Charles Duhigg - one of the original authors of the NY Times investigative piece about Apple's labor practices and author of the book "The Power of Habit" - Charles gets right at the point that Mike tries so hard (in vane?) to get at: people should care that their buying practices have far-reaching impacts. He asks:

"Do you feel comfortable knowing that that iPhones and iPads and, and other products could be manufactured in less harsh conditions, but that these harsh conditions (in factories and societies worldwide) exist and perpetuate because of an economy that you are supporting with your dollars?"
and, in response to his own question says:
"You are actually one of the reasons why it exists. If you made different choices, if you demanded different conditions, if you demanded that other people...enjoy the same work protections that you yourself enjoy, then those conditions would be different overseas."

I can only hope that listeners of TAL and those summarizing the episode in the wider media catch this last, critical piece in today's show.

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