Steve Jobs: The Agony And The Ecstasy

Mike Daisey’s one-man show depicts the connection between the Apple universe and oppressed workers in Shenzhen, says Tony Kontzer

Since the overwhelming majority of you will not be among the lucky few who get to see ‘The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs‘, a thought-provoking show featuring monologist Mike Daisey, it’s a good thing a certain blogger happened to attend the closing matinee of Daisey’s run at Northern California’s venerable Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

Daisey’s tightrope monologue keeps the audience poised between two worlds: Shenzhen, the Chinese city where reportedly oppressed workers make more than half of the world’s electronic devices; and the Apple universe, where the minions of Steve Jobs – Daisey included, by his own admission – await new devices with breathless anticipation, and then scoop them up in slavish devotion.

Daisey’s mission is to make sure we leave the theatre clear about the connection he sees between those two worlds, and, hopefully, that we take a conscious understanding of that connection into our future device-purchasing decisions.

The Apple effect

What makes the show work so well is Daisey’s self-avowed status as an Apple enthusiast and technology geek. He painstakingly describes the joy he feels when shopping for devices, comparing devices to each other, opening the packaging on a shiny new device, and smelling what he calls the “burnt PVC” odor when electricity surges through a device for the first time. Geeks in the audience will nod their heads, touched by the shared experience.

Similarly, as Daisey (pictured) describes his enterprising 2010 trip to Shenzhen – and the shine in his eye once reserved for all things Apple begins to fade – the fellow Apple fans in the theatre surely find themselves questioning their collective crush on the mercurial Jobs. Shenzhen, for those who don’t know, was a fishing village as recently as the late 1970s.

According to Daisey, today it is a packed metropolis of 14 million, almost all of whom came there specifically to work for foreign companies taking advantage of lax business laws granted to China’s “special economic zones,” of which Shenzhen is the most successful. Daisey describes the city as one that was essentially built to serve as a low-cost outsourced factory for international electronics makers looking to save on labour costs.

Access to the factories – the most infamous of which is Foxconn, the iPhone producer that made headlines last year after a rash of workers leapt off dormitory roofs to their deaths – is highly restricted, Daisey reports, with each one surrounded by security walls and armed guards. Still, Daisey says he was able, against all odds, to interview hundreds of factory workers, witness their working conditions first hand, and meet with factory bigwigs. How did he do this? He says he posed as an American industrialist.

While Apple is the focus of Daisey’s carefully constructed rant, his tale most likely could be told in some form about any company that designs and sells electronic devices. What makes Apple particularly culpable in Daisey’s allegations, in my eyes, is its very own history, intertwined with Jobs’.

Apple, lest we all forget, was once the upstart of the computer industry. Born in the shadow of IBM, and long languishing behind Microsoft, Apple is the company that announced its arrival with a legendary 1984 Super Bowl ad paying homage to the George Orwell classic novel “1984.” The ad depicted a revolutionary woman using a hammer to stop the broadcast of a brainwashing overlord being watched by throngs of expressionless drones. Fast forward 27 years, and Jobs appears to have assumed the overlord role.

Alarming hypocrisy

In working toward his goal of making Apple devices the best designed and most ubiquitous in the world, Jobs at some point appears to have decided that supporting one of the most reportedly inhumane labour environments in the world is an acceptable trade-off. The hypocrisy is, to be blunt, alarming.

Oh, sure, a year after admitting that children as young as 15 had been found working in the factories that produced its devices, Apple took some minimal steps to address the situation. But in the eyes of many, it’s too little, too late. Oh, and by the way, Daisey says during his show that he spoke with workers in Shenzhen as young as 12 years old, who stood alongside elderly workers well past their retirement age. He says they endure endless, grueling shifts without speaking, and sleep in overcrowded dorm rooms under constant camera surveillance.

It’s not exactly what I imagine Jobs had in mind when he famously asked John Sculley, the man Apple recruited from PepsiCo in 1983 to run the company, if instead of selling sugar water he wanted to change the world. Jobs was right, of course – Apple did change the world. Only, as Daisey helps us to understand, not all of that change was for the best.

Mike Daisey will be performing The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs 23 March to 10 April at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., and 27 April to 27 May at the Seattle Repertory Theatre.