My only hobby is technology. I love technology. I love everything about it. I love looking at technology. I love comparing one piece of technology with another. I love reading rumors about technology that doesn’t exist yet. I love browsing technology. I love buying technology. I love opening technology. Even when it’s in that bubble packaging, I love opening it. I love the smell of a new piece of technology, that sort of burnt PVC smell when you run electricity through it for the first time. I love that.
And of all the kinds of technology that I love in the world, I love the technology that comes from Apple the most, because I am an Apple aficionado. I’m an Apple partisan. I’m an Apple fanboy. I’m a worshiper in the cult of Mac. I have been to the house of Jobs. I have walked the stations of his cross. I have knelt before his throne.
And like so many of you who may be members of this religion with me, you may know that it can be difficult at times to keep the faith. And I have strayed now and again. In the late ’90s I did sleep with a Windows system or two. But who didn’t, really? But for the most part, I have been faithful.
But I do think it’s important to understand where I sit in that hierarchy of Apple geeks for the purposes of our story. And so the best way I know to describe it is to say that I am at the level of geekishness where to relax after performances like this one, sometimes I will go back to my apartment and I will field strip my MacBook Pro into its 43 component pieces. I will clean them with compressed air, and I will put them back together again. It soothes me.
So the truth is I never would have questioned this religion. I never would have looked deeply at this belief system, because it gave me so much pleasure, if it hadn’t been for the pictures. One day I was relaxing on the internet, which for me means reading Macintosh news sites, which I should specify have no actual news in them. They’re instead filled with rumors about what Apple will do next, written exclusively by people who have no goddamn idea what Apple will do next. But for some reason I find this soothing.
So I’m reading one of those news sites when this article gets posted. And it’s about the fact that someone bought an iPhone, and when they got it, it wasn’t blank. It had information on it from inside the factory. And in fact in the camera roll, there were pictures on it from inside the factory. And they posted these pictures into the article. And I looked at these pictures, and they took my breath away.
They’re not very good pictures, you know? They’re just testing that the camera on the phone works. They’re not of anything. But I’ll never forget them. There were four of them. First there was a stack of pallets, wooden pallets stacked up. And the second one was the edge of a conveyor belt. And the third was totally out of focus. It could just be an enormous space. And the fourth was a woman. She doesn’t know her picture’s being taken. She’s looking off in another direction. She’s wearing a clean suit. She has no expression on her face.
And I looked at these pictures, and I downloaded these pictures to my desktop, and I put them in a folder on my desktop. And in the weeks and months that followed, I found myself returning to them again and again almost compulsively. I would mouse over there, and I would fan them across my desktop, and I would look at them. Who are these people?
Because you have to understand, I have dedicated an embarrassing amount of my life to the study of these machines. I’m an amateur, but I’m a dedicated amateur. I understand as best I can how the hardware works, and how the software rests on the hardware. And in all that time, until I saw those pictures, it was only then I realized I had never thought ever in a dedicated way about how they were made.
It’s actually hard now to reconstruct what I did think. I think what I thought is they were made by robots. I got an image in my mind that I now realize I just stole from a 60 Minutes story about Japanese automotive plants. I just copy and pasted that. I was like, pwop, Command-V, pwop. It looks like that, but smaller, because they’re laptops.
I started to think how if this phone has four pictures on it taken by hand in testing, then every iPhone has four pictures on it taken in testing, every iPhone in the world, by hand. I started to think, and that’s always a problem for any religion, the moment when you begin to think.
Shenzhen is a city without history. The people who live there will tell you that, because 31 years ago Shenzhen was a small town. It had little reed huts, little reed walkways between the huts. The men would fish in the late afternoon. I hear it was lovely.
Today Shenzhen is a city of 14 million people. It is larger than New York City. Depending on how you count it, it’s the third largest city in all of China. It is the place where almost all of your crap comes from.
And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name. Isn’t that remarkable that there’s a city where almost all of our crap comes from, and no one knows its name? I mean, we think we do know where our crap comes from. We’re not ignorant. We think our crap comes from China, right? Kind of a generalized way. China.
But it doesn’t come from China. It comes from Shenzhen. It’s a city. It’s a place.
And I am there in an elevator, going down to the lobby of my hotel to meet with my translator, Kathy. Kathy is fascinating. She’s very small. She has these sort of rounded shoulders. And she has these glasses that are way too big for her face, so they keep sliding down, and she has to push them up assiduously. She also has this sort of unnerving habit that when she is listening to you, she leans forward indeterminately, so you really get the feeling that if you were to talk to her for long enough, she would actually fall into your chest, and you would have to pick her back up again.
We go outside and get into a taxi and begin to drive through the streets of downtown Shenzhen. Shenzhen looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself. LEDs, neon, and 15-story-high video walls covered in ugly Chinese advertising. It’s everything they promised us the future would be.
We get out to the edge of the core of Shenzhen and we come to the gates. Because 31 years ago, when Deng Xiaoping carved this area off from the rest of China with a big red pen, he said, this will be the special economic zone. And he made a deal with the corporations. He said listen, use our people. Do whatever you want to our people. Just give us a modern China. And the corporations took that deal, and they squeezed and they squeezed. And what they got was the Shenzhen we find today.
And on the other side of the gates it’s the factory zone. And whew, it’s like going from the Eloi to the Morlocks, everything changes. I’ve never seen anything like it. Everything is under construction. Every road has a bypass. Every bypass has a bypass. It’s bypasses all the way down.
We pull onto an elevated expressway. We begin to drive under a silver poison sky. Because the air in Shenzhen– it’s not good in Hong Kong, but when you get to Shenzhen, you can actually feel it like a booted foot pressing down on your chest. But it’s amazing what human beings will get used to, isn’t it? Because after you’re there just a few days [DEEP INHALATION AND EXHALATION] you hardly even notice it at all.
And as we’re driving, we’re passing by arcology after arcology, these immense buildings that are so large, they’re redefining my sense of scale moment by moment. And then our taxi driver takes an exit ramp, and he stops, because the exit ramp stops in midair. There’s some rebar sticking out and an 85-foot drop to the ground. The only sign that the exit ramp ends is a single solitary orange cone. It’s sitting there as if to say, we’re busy, be alert.
We back back onto the expressway and begin to drive again. And then Kathy turns to me, pushes up her glasses, and says, excuse me, but I do not think this is going to work. And I hasten to assure her that it will work, but I’m talking out of my ass, because I don’t know that it’s going to work. In fact, I have a lot of evidence that this is not going to work. In fact, all the journalists I have talked to in Hong Kong when I told them about my plan, you can actually see them wrestling with just how to express to me just how totally [BLEEP] my plan is.
My plan is this. We are in a taxi right now in the factory zone. We are driving on our way to Foxconn. Foxconn, a single company, makes a staggering amount of the electronics you use every day. They make electronics for Apple, Dell, Nokia, Panasonic, HP, Samsung, Sony, Lenovo, a third of all of it. That’s Foxconn. And at this plant they make all kinds of things, including MacBook Pros and iPhones and iPads.
And so my plan is to take this taxi to the main gate, and then I’m going to get out of the taxi with my translator. And then my plan is to stand at the main gate and talk to anybody who wants to talk to me.
And when I tell journalists in Hong Kong about my plan, they say, that’s different. That’s not really how we usually do things in China. That’s really a bad idea. That’s really a bad idea.
But I don’t know what else to do. I have been trying to do things the right way. I have been working with a fixer for the BBC. I can’t get anywhere. All the doors are closed. And you reach a certain point when you realize you may need to obey your natural inclination. And at the end of the day, I am large, I am American, and I am wearing a goddamn Hawaiian shirt. And we are going to the main gates.
But I have to admit, when we get there, my resolve wavers because the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen is enormous. The Foxconn plant in Shenzhen has 430,000 workers. That can be a difficult number to conceptualize. I find it’s useful to instead think about how there are more than 20 cafeterias at the plant. And then you just have to understand that workers told me that these cafeterias can hold up to 10,000 people. So now you just need to visualize a cafeteria that seats 10,000 people. I’ll wait.
And I get to the main gate, and I get out of the taxi with my translator. And the first thing I see at the gates are the guards. And the guards look pissed. They look really pissed, and they are carrying guns. And I look back at the taxi, which is now pulling away.
And I’m involuntarily reminded of a Google News alert that popped into my inbox a few weeks earlier about a Reuters photographer who was taking pictures not at the Foxconn plant, but near the Foxconn plant. And Foxconn security went out, scooped him up, and beat him before releasing him.
And I look up past the gates and the guards. I look up at the buildings, these immense buildings. They are so enormous. And along the edges of each enormous building are the nets, because right at the time that I am making this visit, there’s been an epidemic of suicides at the Foxconn plant. Week after week, worker after worker has been climbing all the way up to the tops of these enormous buildings and then throwing themselves off, killing themselves in a brutal and public manner, not thinking very much about just how bad this makes Foxconn look. Foxconn’s response to month after month of suicides has been to put up these nets.
It’s shift change, and the workers are coming out of the plant. And I’m standing there under the hot monsoon sun and the gaze of the guards. I feel ridiculous. I look absurd in this landscape. I mean, I wouldn’t talk to me. And Kathy surprises me. Who knew? She turns out to be a spitfire. She runs right over to the very first worker, grabs them by the arm, drags them over to us. We start talking, and in short order, we cannot keep up.
First there’s one worker waiting, then there’s two, then there’s three. Before long the guards are like, er? Er? And we move further and further away from the plant, but the line just gets longer and longer. Everyone wants to talk. We start taking them three or four at a time. We still can’t keep up. Everyone wants to talk. It’s like they were coming to work every day thinking, you know what would be great? It would be so great if somebody who uses all this crap we make every day all day long, it would be so great if one of those people came and asked us what was going on. Because we would have stories for them.
And I’m just ad hoc-ing questions. I’m asking the questions you would expect. What village in China are you from? How long have you been working at Foxconn? What do you do at the plant? How do you find your job? What would you change at Foxconn if you could change anything?
That question always gets them. They always react like a bee has flown into their faces, and then they say something to Kathy. And Kathy says, he says he never thought of that before. Every time, every time.
And the stories are fascinating. I talked to one young woman who works on the iPhone line. She cleans the screens of iPhones by hand in these huge racks, thousands and thousands of them every day. And she shows me how she does it. And I show her my iPhone. And I hand her my iPhone. I take a picture of her holding my iPhone. And I say to her, we’ll never know, but you may have cleaned the screen of this iPhone when it came by you on the line. We’ll never know. And she, quick as a whip, she takes my phone and she rubs it against her pants. And then she says there, I’ve cleaned it a second time.
And I say to her, you seem kind of young. How old are you? And she says, I’m 13. And I say, 13? That’s young. Is it hard to get work at Foxconn when you’re– and she says oh no. And her friends all agree, they don’t really check ages. The outside companies do have inspections, but workers told me Foxconn always knows when there’s going to be an inspection. So what they do then, they don’t even check ages then. They just pull everyone from the affected line, and then they put the oldest workers they have on that line.
You’d think someone would notice this, you know? I’m telling you that I do not speak Mandarin. I do not speak Cantonese. I have only a passing familiarity with Chinese culture, and to call what I have a passing familiarity is an insult to Chinese culture. I don’t know [BLEEP] all about Chinese culture. But I do know that in my first two hours of my first day at that gate, I met workers who were 14 years old, 13 years old, 12.
Do you really think Apple doesn’t know? In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know? Or are they just doing what we are all doing? Do they just see what they want to see?
Emboldened by my success at Foxconn, I decide to embark on a new plan. But I’m going to need Kathy’s help if it’s going to work, so I meet with her in the lobby of my hotel. And I say to her, Kathy, now you work with a lot of American businessmen, don’t you? And she says, yes, I do. And I say, great, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to call all the factories you have connections with, and I want you to call them. And I want you to tell them that I am an American businessman, and that I want to buy whatever they are selling.
And she listens to this, and she says, but you are not a businessman. And I say, that’s true, I am not a businessman. And she says, and you aren’t going to buy their products. I say, that’s true, I’m not going to buy their products. And she says, you will lie to them. And I say, yes Kathy, I’m going to lie to lots of people.
And for a moment I think it isn’t going to work. And then you can actually see the idea leap the synaptic gap from a problem to a problem to be solved when she says, you are going to need a lot of business cards.
And two days later we head out into the factory zone. As we come to each factory, Kathy briefs me on what it is they make and what it is I have said I am going to buy. The factories are all different, but really they’re more similar than different. There’s always gates and guards. When you get past those, there’s always a lawn, big and green and plush. No one walks on it. No one uses it. You go into the lobbies. The lobby is these huge empty Kubrickian spaces, totally empty except for a tiny little desk for the receptionist.
And you cross the huge, empty lobby to the tiny little desk. You introduce yourselves, and then the executives always come down in a gaggle, all together. They pick you up, and you go up together to a conference room.
After the PowerPoint, we head down to the factory floor, industrial spaces with 20,000, 25,000, 30,000 workers in a single enormous space. They can exert a kind of eerie fascination. There’s a beauty to industrialization on such a massive scale. You don’t have to deny it. There’s a wonder to seeing so much order laid out in front of you. And people are walking around, whispering statistics in your ear.
It’s easy to slip into a kind of Stalinist wet dream, but I try to subvert that by locking onto actual faces. They take me up and down the aisles. And the first thing I notice is the silence. It’s so quiet. At Foxconn you’re demerited if you ever speak on the line.
At no factory I went to did anyone ever speak on the line, but this is deeper than that. As a creature of the First World, I expect a factory making complex electronics will have the sound of machinery, but in a place where the cost of labor is effectively zero, anything that can be made by hand is made by hand. No matter how complex your electronics are, they are assembled by thousands and thousands of tiny little fingers working in concert. And in those vast spaces, the only sound is the sound of bodies in constant, unending motion.
And it is constant. They work a Chinese hour, and a Chinese hour has 60 Chinese minutes, and a Chinese minute has 60 Chinese seconds. It’s not like our hour. What’s our hour now, 46 minutes? You know, you have a bathroom break, and you have a smoke break. If you don’t smoke, there’s a yoga break. This doesn’t look anything like that. This looks like nothing we’ve seen in a century.
They work on the line, and the lines only move as fast as its slowest member, so each person learns how to move perfectly as quickly as possible. If they can’t do it, there are people behind them watching them. And there are cameras watching both sets of people, and people watching the cameras. They lock it down. They sharpen it to a fine, sharp edge every hour, and those hours are long.
The official work day in China is eight hours long, and that’s a joke. I never met anyone who had even heard of an eight-hour shift. Everyone I talked to worked 12-hour shifts standard, and often much longer than that, 14 hours a day, 15 hours a day. Sometimes when there’s a hot new gadget coming out– you know what the [BLEEP] I’m talking about– sometimes it pegs up to 16 hours a day. And it just sits there for weeks and months at a time, month after month after month, straight 16’s, sometimes longer than that.
While I’m in-country, a worker at Foxconn dies after working a 34-hour shift. I wish I could say that’s exceptional, but it’s happened before. I only mention it because it actually happened while I was there.
And I go to the dormitories. I’m a valuable potential future customer. They will show me anything I ask to see. The dormitories are cement cubes, 12-foot by 12-foot. And in that space there are 13 beds, 14 beds. I count 15 beds. They’re stacked up like Jenga puzzle pieces all the way up to the ceiling. The space between them is so narrow, none of us would actually fit in them. They have to slide into them like coffins.
There are cameras in the rooms. There are cameras in the hallways. There are cameras everywhere. And why wouldn’t there be? You know, when we dream of a future where the regulations are washed away and the corporations are finally free to sail above us, you don’t have to dream about some sci-fi dystopian Blade Runner/1984 bull [BLEEP]. You can go to Shenzhen tomorrow. They’re making your crap that way today.
When I leave the factory, as I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out, the way I see everything is starting to change. I keep thinking, how often do we wish more things were handmade? Oh, we talk about that all the time, don’t we? “I wish it was like the old days. I wish things had that human touch.” But that’s not true. There are more handmade things now than there have ever been in the history of the world.
Everything is handmade. I know. I have been there. I have seen the workers laying in parts thinner than human hair. One after another after another. Everything is handmade.
I’m at a restaurant in the factory zone, seated at a table with Kathy. And this aphorism is running through my head over and over again– I can’t remember who said it originally– that paranoia is not paranoia when they’re actually out to get you.
And I go through my checklist again. I’ve gone through my pockets and found every slip of paper with an email address or a phone number, and I’ve destroyed all of these. I’ve hidden my paper notes off of my person, and I’ve erased everything on my laptop. And anything I can’t erase is on an encrypted partition that I hope is encrypted enough. I’ve done all of these things because I am in this restaurant to meet with a union.
Because there are unions in China. There are the ones that are fronts for the Communist Party, and then there are actual unions interested in labor reform. They’re called secret unions, because in China, if you’re caught being a member of or affiliating with a union like that, you go to prison. You go to prison for many years. And that’s why I’ve had to take these precautions.
And getting this meeting involved climbing a ladder of associations, going to meeting after meeting, each step along the way just making good my intentions, just being clear that I am a storyteller. Just want to hear people’s stories. Just want to hear what they have to say.
And the union organizers come in and sit down, and it’s awkward at first. And then they begin to tell me about the situation on the ground. There is so much turmoil in southern China, so much happening just beneath the surface. They tell me about the two Honda plants that have gone on strike in the north of the province, and how they helped organize that strike. And I think about what it would mean to go on strike in a country where even being a member of a union can get you thrown in prison, what it would take to be pushed to that point.
And I feel provincial saying this, but it’s true. I can’t stop thinking about how young these people are. They don’t even look college age. They look younger than that. And I say to them, how do you know who’s right to work with you? How do you find people to help you organize?
And this sort of breaks the narrative, and for a moment they look their age. And they look at each other bashfully, and they say well, we talk a lot. We talk all the time. We have lots of meetings, and we meet at coffeehouses and different Starbucks in Guangzhou. And we exchange papers, and sometimes there are books. And it’s so clear in this moment that they are making this up as they go along.
Then the workers start coming in. They come in in twos and threes and fours. They come in all day. It’s an eight, nine-hour day. I interview all of them. Some of them are in groups.
There’s a group that’s talking about hexane. N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try to keep up with the quotas. The problem is that n-hexane is a potent neurotoxin, and all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass.
I talk to people whose joints in their hands have disintegrated from working on the line, doing the same motion hundreds and hundreds of thousands of times. It’s like carpal tunnel on a scale we can scarcely imagine. And you need to know that this is eminently avoidable. If these people were rotated monthly on their jobs, this would not happen.
But that would require someone to care. That would require someone at Foxconn and the other suppliers to care. That would require someone at Apple and Dell and the other customers to care. Currently no one in the ecosystem cares enough to even enforce that. And so when you start working at 15 or 16, by the time you are 26, 27, your hands are ruined. And when they are truly ruined, once they will not do anything further, you know what we do with a defective part in a machine that makes machine. We throw it away.
And the thing that unites all these people is that they are all the kind of people who would join a union in a place where joining a union can destroy your life. I talk with one woman. She’s very birdlike, very nervous. And she just wants to explain to me how it is that she came to be in a union, because she never thought she would ever be in a union. It’s just that she couldn’t get her company to pay her overtime. And she complained and complained. This went on for weeks and for months.
And Kathy says to her kind of sharply, she says, you should have gone to the labor board. That’s what they’re there for. You should have gone to the labor board. And the woman says, I did. I went to the labor board, and I told them about my problem. And they took down my name and my address and my company, and they took my name and they put it on the blacklist, and they fired me. And then she shows me a copy of the blacklist. A friend of hers in Accounting photocopied it and snuck it out to her. She gives it to me. I hand it to Kathy to translate.
You know, in a fascist country run by thugs, you don’t have to be subtle. You can say exactly what you mean. The sheet is very clear that it comes from the labor board. And it says right across the top, the following is a list of troublemakers. If any of them are found in your employ, dismiss them immediately. And then there’s just column after column after column of names, page after page after page of them. Kathy’s hand trembles as she translates it.
I talk to an older man with leathery skin. His right hand is twisted up into a claw. It was crushed in a metal press at Foxconn. He says he didn’t receive any medical attention, and it healed this way. And then when he was too slow, they fired him. Today he works at a woodworking plant. He says he likes it better. He says the people are nicer and the hours are more reasonable. He works about 70 hours a week.
And I ask him what he did when he was at Foxconn, and says he worked on the metal enclosures for the laptops, and he worked on the iPad. And when he says this, I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, because one of the ultimate ironies of globalism, at this point there are no iPads in China. Even though every last one of them was made at factories in China, they’ve all been packaged up in perfectly minimalist Apple packaging and then shipped across the seas, that we can all enjoy them.
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 Kathy, and Kathy says, “he says it’s a kind of magic.”
It’s a long day. At the end of it I’m packing up everything to go, and Kathy says something to me out of nowhere. She says, do you think these people are mentally ill? Do you think it is possible they are making all this up? And I look at her as though for the first time, because I mean, let’s be clear. She’s my Chinese worker. I pay her for her time. I don’t think about her very much at all. But now I really look at her. She is exactly who all these workers I’ve been talking to for weeks, she is exactly what they are all dreaming that their children will one day be. She has a good life in the center of Shenzhen for her, for her family. What does this look like to her?
I say to her, what do you think? Do you think they’re mentally ill? And she suddenly looks very tired. She takes off her glasses, and she rubs the bridge of her nose. And she says, no, I do not think they are mentally ill. It’s just that you hear stories, but you do not think it is going to be so much. You know? It’s just so much.
And I reach across the table, and I touch her hand. It’s the first and last time we will ever touch, I and this woman whose real name I don’t even know. I say to her, I know exactly what you mean.