Magical iPads: Why did we believe Mike Daisey?

Guest post by Peter Wogan

We now know that Mike Daisey’s theatre show was based on solid research about Apple Inc.’s labor practices in China, but key scenes were manipulated or fabricated for dramatic effect. I’d like to explore what this scandal tells us about culture, magic, and technology.

Every tall tale requires an audience. And one that succeeds on a massive scale requires a storyteller with a subtle understanding of the audience’s unconscious needs and assumptions. So what were the cultural blindspots that Daisey played on? In particular, why was the scene of the Chinese man with the mangled hand considered to be one of the most moving parts of the whole show?

I’m referring to the scene where Daisey supposedly met an old Chinese man whose “right hand is twisted up into a claw” because it got crushed in a metal press while making iPads. In hushed tones, Daisey describes the man’s reaction when he got to use an actual, working iPad for the first time:

Using a finger to operate the iPad. Flickr/kennykunie

“I reach into my satchel, and I take out my iPad. And when he sees it, his eyes widen, 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, so 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 [Daisey’s translator], and Kathy says, “He says it’s a kind of magic.”” –Mike Daisey, excerpt played on the radio show “This American Life.”

Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” referred to this scene as “the most dramatic point in Daisey’s monologue; apparently onstage it’s one of the most emotional moments in the show.” Yet Kathy, Daisey’s translator, later said that this scene “is not true. You know, it’s just like a movie scenery.” She’s right—it has that Hollywood feel. So to figure out why this episode was so moving to audiences, aside from the obvious way that it elicits empathy for the injured man, the best place to begin is with movie tropes.

Daisey was echoing a familiar movie scene that depicts native awe in the face of Western technology. We’ve seen this image, for example, in The Gods Must be Crazy, where an African tribe is over-awed when they encounter a Coke bottle for the first time. Other such encounters can be found throughout Western cinema, from the gramophone that amazes the Eskimos in Nanook of the North to John Smith’s compass in Pocohantas. These scenes validate a Western sense of identity based on superior technology, and they play off the vicarious thrill of seeing others surprised by novel situations.

But it’s more complicated. Daisey had to rework this long-standing “Technology Scene” to reflect the complexities of the computer age and China-U.S. relations. He does this by focusing on a powerful symbol: hands.

Promotional poster for the 1922 documentary Nanook of the North. Wikimedia Commons.

The focus is on the Chinese man’s hands because that’s the focus of our own experience with Apple’s products. (I use collective terms like “our” as shorthand; obviously everyone doesn’t feel or experience the same things.) The iPad experience is very tactile; it’s all about gently touching and tapping and sliding your fingers on a very smooth surface. Touchscreens and Apple hand-held products have now been around long enough that it’s easy to forget how special this sensuous interaction with technology is, but others certainly noticed when the iPod, the pioneer of these devices, first came out. As one tech writer noted at the time, “Owners love to touch it [their iPod]; during interviews I notice that discussing an iPod will trigger an urge to take it out of purse or pocket and fondle it…[P]eople can’t keep their hands off it” (Steven Levy, The Perfect Thing, p. 90). Daisey’s description recalls such initial reactions: “he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth.”


Calling it “magic” also works because the whole scene has a hint of the revolutionary adaptations of technology going on today in medical science. Giving this Chinese man the use of his hand again through an iPad brings to mind “miraculous” bio-tech inventions, such as prosthetic limbs that move in response to brain activity, or computers that detect eye movement and allow ALS patients to type.

But there’s something more culturally specific going on here as well. The graceful, soft touch of the iPad seems very…well, Chinese. According to an American stereotype, Chinese have delicate hands and excellent fine-motor skills, as seen in chopsticks, intricate written characters, and calligraphy, as well as all those Chinese factories where tiny electronic parts are assembled by hand. As Daisey says in the show, “I have seen the workers [in China] laying in parts thinner than human hair, one after another after another.”

So this is another level of symbolism. Daisey’s image makes visible what is going on in the production of these sleek Apple devices, a transnational organ transplant in which graceful Chinese hands are transformed into graceful American hands. The difference is that whereas the transplant of graceful fingers usually flows from China to the United States, in this case it flows back to its source: thanks to the iPad, even a Chinese man with a mangled hand can re-acquire graceful dexterity. American audiences can agree that this is “a kind of magic.”

If this is starting to sound too anthropomorphic, that’s as it should be. Anthropomorphism of machines is a fine and necessary tradition, from Hal in Space Odyssey to R2D2 in Star Wars and the disabled soldier in Avatar. These movies are just us humans trying to make sense of the world, using narrative to think through our complex, boundary-crossing relations with computers.

E.T. movie poster

And if what I’ve said sounds too positive, don’t worry; it’s not all good magic. In Daisey’s formulation, the mangled hand is a patently obvious symbol for the harmfulness of sweatshop labor and the global economy. I would just add that the mangled hand could also be a symbol for what’s mangled in our own world: the constant distractions of iPhones, iPods, and iPads, which tear us away from people in the same room with us; the snark and flame wars that proliferate online, where you often can’t identify people or hear the tone of their voice. (This unease with virtual communication may be more pronounced among Daisey’s audience, people who attend live theatre.)

So maybe the best movie analog here is Edward Scissorhands or E.T.—movies about figures with magical appendages. Edward has scissors for hands and E.T. has a finger that glows, and both came to heal broken, consumerist societies.

The Chinese man is presented in a healing role as well. When he says, “It’s magic,” he exonerates and heals all the Americans who love their iPads and low prices, but feel guilty about it. The old man is saying, “Don’t feel bad. I, too, would have bought an iPad. Who can resist magic?”

Daisey seems to have understood what every magician knows: the magic trick will only work if you get the audience to follow your hands.

Peter Wogan is  Professor of Anthropology at Willamette University, co-author of Hollywood Blockbusters: The Anthropology of Popular Movies (2009), and author of, where he tries to make sense of sharks (“Jaws”), baseball (“Field of Dreams”), and model families (“The Godfather”), among other things.

For their helpful suggestions, I want to thank Sam Pack, David Sutton, and Russell Voth.

Further Reading
Lee Drummond, American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity, 1996.

This whole book, one of the first to make me think about the human-machine issue in movies, can be downloaded for free at the bottom of the home page on Drummond’s website

See especially Chapter 4, “The Story of Bond” [yes, as in the gadgets of Bond, James Bond], and Chapter 5, “Metaphors be With You: A Cultural Analysis of Star Wars.”

Sam Pack, Constructing “The Navajo”: Visual and Literary Representations From Inside and Out. Wicazo Sa Review 15(1): 137-156. (2000)

Peter Wogan, “What’s So Funny about First Contact?Visual Anthropology Review 22:14-33, 2006.

In this article, I analyze a documentary about first contact in the 1930s between Australian goldminers and aboriginal peoples in Papua New Guinea. I analyze Westerners’ fascination with technology as a ritual of supremacy, but also as a source of “wonder,” and I place the discussion within the Obeyesekere-Sahlins debate over rationality.

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