Last night we went to see "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" by Mike Daisey. Two hours vanished as we sat riveted and listened to interspersed stories of Apple and Shenzhen. Mike spoke of Apple and computers as a lover, familiar with the details, and knowledgeable in the special language of geeks and engineers. He was hysterically funny.
And we all understood.
After all, the night at the play was organized as a spring celebration by the Washington Technology Industry Association, a group intimately familiar with the ways of tech.
From the music preceeding the show, to Mike's stories of dabbling with the "heretical Linux" platform and even sleeping around with Windows, now and then in the late 90's, we laughed, having been there ourselves and lived those moments.
But once place we had never been was Shenzhen, China. We never knew that 50% of our electronics were made by Foxconn, a company of over 400,000 people who work in buildings surrounded by nets designed to catch suicidal workers. We never knew that teenagers worked 32 hour shifts and sometimes died afterwards. We never knew that our lovely Iphones and Ipads were assembled by hand, in 12 hour shifts, in silence, because people in China are cheaper than machines.
And we certainly didn't know the workers were children.
Mike described talking to people outside of factories, touring the plants, and hearing people's stories. And we found ourselves "infected with the mind virus" just as he described, knowing more than we wanted.
Perhaps he unfairly picked on Apple. It seems likely that Androids, Blackberrys, and other high tech items are built the same way. We expect computers that pride themselves on being cheap to be built in shoddy, unseemly surroundings.
But we hold Apple to a higher standard. Mike posed the question, as a long-time fan of Apple products and committed Apple user. He asked how Apple, a company so obsessed with detail, be unaware that their products are being assembled by children, in dystopian 1984 style factories.
We went home after the play and turned on our computers. And thought maybe there should be the computer equivalent of fair-trade coffee.
Maybe the Gates Foundation could detour a bit from malaria and push computer factories to "think different."