Trust in a Digital Age

Ever since catching the better part of Ira Glass’s retraction on last week’s “This American Life” every story about Mike Daisey has caught my eye. A quick search on Google News reveals the intense coverage surrounding this incident – which has perhaps overshadowed the initial coverage Daisey earned from his “revelations” about the production of Apple products.

If you want to get up to speed quickly here’s the scoop:

Mike Daisy is a theatrical monologist (he reads from a stage). In 2010 he produced a monolog called The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs which you can download in its entirety. Daisey chronicled a visit he made to China to tour the working conditions where Apple products are built. His monolog was adapted and aired on “This American Life,” a very popular show that airs on many NPR affiliates. Ira Glass, the show’s host, issued a full hour long retraction of the episode last Sunday due to the sheer volume of factual errors discovered.

I don’t have any new facts to add to this story. However, a the blogger behind Defective Yeti – whom I have followed since the early days of the internet – chimed in on this event. Matthew Baldwin worked in the same office as Mike Daisey at His perspective on Daisey’s earliest work adds a level of depth and complexity to this story that other commentators can’t provide.

It is difficult to know who to trust in the digital realm. The textual format of the medium conceals any body language or speech patterns that might trigger skepticism in the audience. Matthew Baldwin has overcome this hurdle for me. It is hard to say what about Baldwin’s writing makes it feel honest to me. His website Defective Yeti can be labeled humorous and un-serious, yet I would never call it dishonest.

The Blending of fact and fiction earned my attention to the controversy over Daisey’s work. Even after repeated requests and multiple interviews, the line that separates truth from lie in his monolog is impossible to detect. Daisey’s own memory of the events from China are now tainted by the dozens of times he has retold his Agony and Ecstasy story. This makes it even harder for him to untangle outright deceptions from places where truths were bent. Recent studies in neuroscience show that the act of remembering has real impacts on the memory, forever changing it depending on the context. The audience may never be able to reconcile Daisey’s story from that of his Chinese translator, Cathy Lee.