Apple Factories, Truth, and our Framing Story

I just started listening to This American Life on the recommendation of a friend. I have thoroughly enjoyed each episode, but the Apple story below especially caught my attention.

To listen to the story, go here:

This story brings up an important aspect of truth for me which isn't always easy to recognize - framing. And in that vein, I think there's a story behind the story of the Apple retractment story.

A couple of things from near the end of the program really stood out to me ...

Mike: "If I untied these things, the work that is really good and tells a story - that makes people care - would come apart in a way that would ruin everything."
Mike: "I wanted to make a monolog that would make people care."
Mike: "I know that so much of this story is the best work I've ever made"
Mike: "My mistake is that I had it on your show as journalism"

I think one of Mike Daisey's fundamental mistakes was that he tried to create a narrative for the purpose of a specific outcome from the audience: "I care." So the story he crafted reflects his desire to create this response, and resonates with some fairly stereotypical impressions and convictions about corporations, government, and mass media. It seems to me that he essentially framed this story on Foxcom factories in China with his own story; that is, the story that he frames his world with. Or, he intentionally used a framing story that much of America connects with on the level of stereotyping, which is another discussion all together. This framing story says things like, "factories in developing nations must always be guarded by armed guards, and must always include many underage workers, because of a set of things which is true of all developing nations, or of all corporations with factories in developing nations." Daisy's framing story is also a story that perhaps blames media for the population's lack of concern for their fellow countrymen. These points of framing directly and utterly affected the outcome of the content of his art, but it did not affect the truth that his art conveys.

We know well in the West that even big stories in the nightly news only run for so long before the next thing is brought to our ultimate attention. Ask the people of Haiti about that. Their struggle continues, but our media has dropped the story for the most part. So why would China's media be any different? For that matter, is it even the media's fault? Yes and no. The medium of daily, repetitively broadcasted news itself dictates how content will be perceived and understood over time. Specifically, it produces a particular change in the way people interact with one another. Perhaps people become less sensitive to the broadcasts overall, or more sensitive to certain things being broadcasted at certain times. Repeating a story too much, or too long a time frame could have some unintended consequences. More importantly that that, our overuse of communication-related technology has created a disconnect in our relationships. A group of people watching a screen together, listening to a report on the radio, or even watching a monolog through the medium of a stage, are forced to ingest the information individually in a constant stream without pause. No interaction, and thus no relational devices are used. This is vastly different from a group of people talking and conversing about the same information as relayed through a story in-person. While experiencing news through some sort of mediating technology, you can't ask the reporter questions about what they are reporting, and if you do you will get no responses. You can only accept it. At least, that's what the medium of communications technology in all its forms (including the theater) does on a fundamental level. For anything beyond this basic response, one must use some critical thinking skills; otherwise, we simply accept and move on.

This brings me back to Daisy, and the root problem of his narrative.  He connected a small series of otherwise true events into a narrative in such a way that it effectively made any event which may have been true in the story utterly false. The stated purpose of his story was to "to make people care," so he took liberties with significant portions of the plot. He twisted together a compelling, yet utterly false representation of the thematic truth and factual truth of the real story; and in doing so, he severely endangered his purpose in the process. On a basic level, he essentially created an artistic impression of what he experienced - which by itself isn't bad. He let us know how he felt, and used hyperbole and misdirection to achieve those ends, and he used them well. The part that bothers me greatly is that he stated he is concerned with the truth, yet he was not willing to allow what he actually saw and heard to be embedded within an artistic frame that would bring listeners to knowledge of something more fundamentally true than simply what he heard and saw. His artistic impression should have shown truth in a way that could connect us as human beings. Truth begets more truth. This would leave us with something meaningful to take away, mull over and talk about.

Without knowing it, Mr Daisey has done just that. He created a compelling narrative, and in doing so, he has communicated truth. But it's not truth he wanted to communicate. It was an accident, or rather, a by-product of his art. The truth he (inadvertently) communicated is that we all have a framing story which is shaped by a complex web of factors.

The framing story Mike Daisy used to create his art is deeply broken; is ours?



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