Short story: “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory”

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“Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” by This American Life (who did not know they were airing a work of fiction) and Mike Daisey

Listen to episode 454 (January 6, 2012) here, based on Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs”; retraction here and in the latest episode, 460 (March 16, 2012) here

Something around 9,000 words

So apparently Daisey completely invented the climactic scene of this episode/story, in which he shows his iPad to a man who injured his hand in an Apple factory. (The below is mostly copied from Ira Glass’s retraction post.)

He’s never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, “He says it’s a kind of magic.”

When I heard Daisey recount that moment, I teared up a bit. Admit it, you did too. Somewhere on the other side of the world, there was a real live person who had lost a part of his body (and his livelihood) slaving over a toy he could never afford, and yet he still recognized it as a thing of beauty. Maybe he knew a great user interface when he saw one; maybe in another world, he could have been a Steve Jobs. Or maybe his spirit was too broken for anger. Or maybe he was just phenomenally gracious and polite.

Now consider the same scene as fiction. It’s hokey. It’s too perfect. It’s bad Hollywood, or really bad Dickens.

Even worse, it’s not purely speculative fiction. There really are injured factory workers out there. That man may really exist, but Daisey doesn’t know how he feels or acts. All Daisey knows is that the scene needs to have emotional impact. That means a build-up of tension, as we wonder how the man will react, followed by cathartic release. Daisey wants us to feel humbled by a sense of unearned forgiveness (a forgiveness he no doubt craves as an Apple user himself). If the injured man in this story were real, he would be a remarkable person. As a character, he’s a puppet.

(Let’s not even get into the Noble Savage overtones of calling technology “magic.”)

When a so-perfect-it’s-hokey moment happens in real life, we can treasure it, because we know it wasn’t manufactured for us. A perfect moment is a happy accident or, to the religious, a gift of grace. In nonfiction, as long as we trust that “it really happened that way,” we can share the moment after the fact. Fiction is different. Fiction has to earn our trust from the ground up.

As a nonfiction piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” was amazing. I wish I had written about it earlier. Learning that it’s fiction, I’m disappointed. I’m not just disappointed that Daisey was willing to fudge the facts in an area where the facts are unusually important; I’m also disappointed that he’s not as good a writer as I thought he was. I wish his fiction were still good without the “true story” gimmick. It’s not.

I’m typing this on a new-ish computer assembled in China. Nothing in this post is meant to downplay or negate the very real problems of Apple’s and other companies’ business practices, which This American Life discusses further.

Edited to add: In the interests of strict accuracy, I should add that Daisey claims elsewhere that the encounter with the injured worker, or something very similar, actually happened. “I will tell you: It was not as dramatic as it sounds in the show.” Whatever, maybe it’s true.

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