We live in a media world simultaneously obsessed with technology and personality, and so it was hardly surprising that when Steve Jobs succumbed to cancer, the coverage of his life would focus, alternately, on his incredible accomplishments in the former category together with his apparent shortcomings in the latter. Yes, Jobs was a genius and also an SOB. This is hardly unusual when it comes to geniuses. In Jobs’s case, his boorish behavior makes for an interesting biography, courtesy of Walter Isaacson, but it’s not really an issue for the rest of us.
Far more significant are the societal roles Jobs played. And here, despite the myriad ways his companies improved our lives, Jobs was a hero only in the Ayn Randian sense. A living, breathing character out of Atlas Shrugged, he treated the people who actually manufacture Apple products like serfs and hoarded his $8.3 billion fortune to no apparent purpose.
Apple is a wonderful company for its customers and investors. So, too, Pixar. (NeXT, not so much…) But Apple is also an engine of misery for its subcontracted Chinese workers. That this story went largely unreported during Jobs’s life is a testament to how enthralled our media are by the myth of the man’s talismanic qualities, and how easily manipulated most reporters are by wealthy, successful entrepreneurs. But it is also a testament to how little the lives of laborers appear to count anymore. It fell to the monologist Mike Daisey, who created and stars in the brilliant one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, now at the Public Theater in New York City, to force this issue into public consciousness. Daisey traveled to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, which employs 420,000 people to manufacture products for Apple and other electronics and computer companies, to talk with the workers (unlike the Wired magazine reporter who, Daisey scathingly notes, penned a 3,300-word cover story on the plant without speaking to a single worker). Daisey’s mission was risky—a photographer was recently beaten up by the company’s guards—but he was determined, having heard about abuses at Foxconn. There, thirty-four-hour shifts, beatings, child labor, an epidemic of suicides and a general prison-camp atmosphere prevailed, and even yawning could get your (meager) pay docked. He met one worker whose hand had been “permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads.” When Daisey showed the man his iPad, it was the first time he had ever seen one turned on. He thought it was “magic.”
Faced with a public relations problem relating to the suicides, the company installed wire mesh on the factory windows to stop workers from jumping out to kill themselves. According to a subsequent London Daily Mail exposé, the workers have also been forced to sign a legally binding document promising that they and their dependents will not sue the company as the result of “any unexpected death or injury, including suicide or self torture.”