What Chinese workers want

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Workers inspected motherboards on a factory line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzen on May 26, 2010.
Workers inspected motherboards on a factory line at the Foxconn plant in Shenzen on May 26, 2010.

What Chinese workers want

Earlier this year, an episode of the radio show “This American Life” alarmed listeners with its stories of horrific working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories; then, last month, the episode was retracted when it turned out that Mike Daisey, the man behind the episode, had made up many of the events he claimed to have witnessed. The kerfuffle has had surprising consequences. Predictably, it’s brought factory conditions in China under the spotlight. Less predictably, it’s invited pushback from informed observers, who say that work in China’s high-tech factories is more rewarding — and more dignified — than many Western reports suggest.

Over at The New Yorker’s News Desk blog, Leslie T. Chang — who has written a book, “Factory Girls,” about Chinese factory workers — argues that we might actually be too self-centered in our thinking about Chinese manufacturing. “China produces goods for markets all over the world, including for its own consumers,” she points out, “thanks to low costs, a large and educated workforce, and a flexible manufacturing system that responds rapidly to market demands. To imagine that we have willed this universe into being is simply solipsistic.”

Most American coverage of Chinese manufacturing, for instance, “plays up the relation between workers and their products,” calculating how long a typical worker would have to save up to buy an iPhone. But Chinese workers, Chang writes, don’t want iPhones. “Their reckonings are different: How much money can I save at this job? How long should I stay? And later: How much do I need to buy an apartment or a car, to get married or put my child through school?”


For many Chinese workers, working in a factory is part of an ambitious plan for expanding one’s life possibilities. One worker explains it to Chang this way: “My mother tells me to come home and get married. But if I marry now before I have fully developed myself, I can only marry an ordinary worker. So I’m not in a rush.”

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That’s not to say, of course, that consumers shouldn’t care about the conditions in which their products are made. But it’s possible to care without buying into a Dickensian narrative in which childlike, victimized workers toil away while dreaming of owning the objects we happen to want. We need to understand their life goals, and not assume they share our shopping lists.

A whole new life form

Today we’re all engaged in a sprawling conversation about how digital life is transforming our economy and our culture. And yet, according to George Dyson, author of the excellent new history of the computer, “Turing’s Cathedral,” we might be missing the big picture: In an interview on the website, Dyson argues that the real significance of the networked world might be biological.

istockphoto/Globe Staff illustration

In inventing the computer, he writes, we’ve also invented a whole biosphere of autonomous, self-replicating codes, which are multiplying and communicating without us. “It’s just the small, warm pond,” he says, “sitting there waiting for the spark.”

In the interview, Dyson describes visiting a server room at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where an early computer was perfected. There, he sees something you’ll find in almost any server room: “an entire server, very high-end, very sophisticated — a few years ago, we would have called it a supercomputer,” which has as “its sole, 24 hour a day job . . . monitoring all the data coming in, trying to keep out self-replicating strings of code.” The server, Dyson argues, is coping with a network full of autonomous digital life-forms, replicating and communicating at light speed, and without human intervention.


“In 1945,” Dyson concludes, “we actually did create a new universe,” full of “numbers with a life of their own.” And the evolution of this new life is only just beginning.

How to play your head

Minoru Tsuyuki

Japanese musician Masaki Batoh — better known as the frontman of the psychedelic band Ghost — has released a new album, Brain Pulse Music, on which he uses a special machine to create music from his brain waves. To play his “brain pulse machine,” you wear special goggles that display your brain waves; the biofeedback enables you to control, to some degree, the sounds being produced.

Batoh has used his madcap instrument to create something serious: a somber, difficult album of “requiems and prayers” for victims of Japan’s massive earthquake. For one track, Batoh asked a friend to wear the BPM headset while he showed her a series of photographs of the quake’s aftermath. The resulting music is, on some level, a direct reflection of her otherwise-unexpressed responses. You can get the album direct from Batoh’s label, Drag City.

Joshua Rothman is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at