An Audience for Shenzhen: part one

“Shenzhen is a city of fourteen million people. It is larger than New York City, it is the third largest city in all of China, and it is the place where almost all of your shit comes from.

And the most amazing thing is, almost no one in America knows its name.

Isn’t that remarkable? ” -Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs 

Night view of one of Shenzhen's six "Special Economic Zones"

Over the winter break, I finally got around to listening to a podcast of Mike Daisey’s This American Life episode.  The piece is an excerpt from his stage monologue entitled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which Daisey has been performing for over a year—long before the sudden interest in Steve Jobs following the Apple founder’s death. Daisey has toured the country with his investigative storytelling (he would be the first to tell you this is not “journalism” in the professional sense).

The broadcast on Public Radio International was not particularly timely in other ways, too. Stories about the conditions at Foxconn (and other similar factories in Shenzhen) had been circulating the internet for years on technology news sites. “Which,” as Daisey remarks in his monologue, “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 fucking idea what Apple will do next.”

Usually these stories are reviews or marketing, and are dropped when newer, faster, more exciting technology comes along. However, in this instance, stories of suicides at Shenzhen was a recurring theme, since it didn’t entail one specific device, but assembly plants for the whole industry. These stories were not being covered by major news outlets—or if they were, they were only a minor blip relegated to a few seconds during an already abbreviated “tech beat” segment.

 

Frequency of US Google searches (above) and news stories (below) on "Foxconn"

 

Then, all of a sudden, I started hearing about Foxconn from non-technology websites, looking at the story from a labor and international trade perspective. There was a spike every couple of months in the number of outlets paying attention to Shenzhen factories. Of course, when Steve Jobs died, very few people dared to write anything negative about Apple for a few weeks, but then Mike Daisey’s piece aired on This American Life.

The New York Times, who had sporadic references to Foxconn before January, started publishing articles and web pieces multiple times a week on this company.

Even Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, that bellwether of news important enough to satire, covered Apple’s problems with labor relations in Shenzhen.

After all of this publicity, Daisey released a script of his monologue for free. This is strange, and not for the open-source-inspired royalty-free conditions Daisey attaches to the script, but because Daisey does not usually work with a fully written script. His monologues are outlines, which he fills at the moment of performance, in front of an audience.

The sudden surge in coverage of Shenzhen coincided with Daisey’s appearance on public radio, despite the fact that this story had been in circulation for years. In my next blog entry, I will examine the shifting audience for the story. Where was Daisey’s monologue performed, which news outlets were covering Shenzhen, and how—to use French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s formulations—class tastes might operate during shifts in this monologue’s multiple media. How does the audience for this story change in the telling and hearing?

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  1. […] Last time, I wrote about the increasing popularity of stories about high tech factories in Shenzhen, China. […]

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