The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is viral entertainment. Mike Daisey’s monologue is a marvelously entertaining, at times tremendously funny reflection on Apple culture, but along the way it delivers a payload of information that it would be easier and more comforting not to know but that you cannot, and must not, unhear.
Daisey is performing it in repertory with another monologue about consumer culture, The Last Cargo Cult, and while they’re both fascinating and thought-provoking pieces of work, Agony is the more well-crafted of the two. Both go back and forth between Daisey’s travels and the larger issues they illustrate back home, but this piece’s various parts are woven together more seamlessly.
As in all Daisey’s monologues, he sits at a table talking, but for this piece Seth Reiser’s set and lighting design takes on a more high-tech aesthetic than usual. This time the table is frosted glass lit from underneath, and in the background is a large frame with a sort of checkerboard formation of open rectangles. Different sections of the frame light up at different points in the monologue, shifting as if to mark chapter breaks (something Daisey is adept at doing with his voice anyway).
In Agony, Daisey talks hilariously about his own longtime infatuation with technology and brand loyalty to Apple; he tells the story of Apple Inc. cofounder and CEO Steve Jobs and the evolution of the Apple brand; and most hauntingly, he relates his own journey to China to visit the factory where Apple products are made by hand—indeed, where 52 percent of the electronics on earth are made, in one mammoth Foxconn complex in Shenzhen.
That there was such a place was something he hadn’t really thought about, he says, until someone bought an iPhone that still had test photos taken in the factory on it—test photos that are taken on all iPhones before shipping, but are wiped as a matter of course. This discovery that Apples aren’t made my magic robots but are made by hand by factory workers in China got Daisey thinking—and, he says, “That’s always a problem for any religion, the moment you begin to think.”
As for the material about Jobs itself, it’s certainly a fascinating story—one of the making, breaking and remaking of a company, a brand and a new paradigm of computer use—and not always a flattering one. The picture we get of Jobs is one of a genius who can be a nightmare to work with but more of a nightmare to work without. “The thing about Steve Jobs is that he is two things welded together: He is a visionary asshole,” Daisey says succinctly.
One thing we were all wondering was how the news of Jobs’s open-ended medical leave of absence, announced a few days before opening night, would affect the monologue, especially because Daisey works without a written script and has some flexibility to tweak things as the run goes on. On opening night at least, the answer was that he didn’t address it at all, although it was hard not to think about the news when Daisey got to the section in which he talks about how Apple went into a “death spiral” the last time Jobs wasn’t there. Remember the Newton? If you don’t, Daisey’s description of it is priceless.
But ultimately, despite the title, the piece isn’t really about Jobs. It’s more about what he hath wrought—the cult of Apple, the shiny gleaming surface allure of its products and the sobering, seldom-seen underside of the business that should give us all pause.
Some of the stuff about Apple culture is hilarious. Daisey marvels at Apple’s genius for design, its knack for convincing you that the device that gave you shivers of awe a few years ago is a piece of crap that must be replaced with the latest beautiful shiny new thing. He talks about the Apple II, “the first expensive appliance that millions of people buy, they turn it on, and it does nothing”—the idea being that you figure out what to do with it. And of course people did.
He has us chortle with him about the old fantasy of literally plugging ourselves into the Net Matrix-style with ports in our heads (especially considering the dubious reliability of the software we deal with on a daily basis), and then turns it around to have us consider how many of us are always connected to the Internet in a way we wouldn’t have imagined possible years ago. “Many of you have devices in your pocket right now that are more powerful than desktop computers used to be 12 years ago,” he says. “What I am saying is, we are cyborgs already. The future already happened.”
But this would all be light entertainment were it not for the trip to Shenzhen, where Daisey circumvents the secretive and restrictive government and even more secretive corporate culture by taking advantage of the universally understood brazenness of a large white American in a Hawaiian shirt. He simply deposits himself unannounced in front of the factory with his indispensible translator and seeing if any of the workers want to talk to him—which they do, despite being in a country where union membership can get you imprisoned for life and filing a complaint through normal channels about lack of overtime pay puts you on a blacklist as a troublemaker. Later he poses as an American businessman to tour the facility.
What he discovers—and I’m sure you saw this coming—is that conditions are inhumane, so much so that there are nets all around the building as a half-assed response to workers throwing themselves off the roof. Although workdays are theoretically 8 hours, in practice they’re 12 to 16 hours of crippling repetitive labor without breaks, so that people deliberately drop things when they think they can get away with it, just for the moment’s respite of bending over to pick it up. Many workers are underage, not because it’s allowed but because no one checks. This is the price someone else pays for our artificially inexpensive products, and it’s by no means specific to Apple. But if we’re not even aware that a 13-year-old kid put together our iPod by hand under backbreaking conditions—if we choose not to be aware of that—we’re letting ourselves off the hook way too easily.
“We talk all the time about how much we wish more things were handmade,” Daisey says. “It is that way now. Today more things are handmade than ever before. The whole world is handmade if you have the eyes to see it.” What he does in this thoroughly entertaining but slyly provocative monologue is open our eyes so that we have no choice but to see clearly where our products actually come from, at least for a moment. What we do with that information, whether we choose to avert our eyes again after that, is up to us.
Show #7 of 2011, attended January 23.