Playwright Mike Daisey discusses his new work, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," — yeah, that Steve Jobs — and how it changed the way he looks at technology. Seattle Rep will stage it April 21-May 22.
Mike Daisey is a self-admitted “high-tech fanboy.”
And on stages around the globe, this accomplished solo theater auteur also is emerging as one of the American high-tech industry’s outspoken critics.
First there was his breakthrough show “21 Dog Years: Doing Time@Amazon.com,” which premiered in Seattle and cast a skeptical gaze on the local online retail giant. (Daisey lived here and worked for Amazon during the late 1990s.)
For his new solo show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” (opening soon at Seattle Repertory Theatre), Daisey muses colorfully and humorously on how Jobs, and his wildly successful company Apple, changed the way we communicate and view the world with cutting-edge electronics devices at hand.
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But the provocative monologue doesn’t stop there. An insatiably curious Daisey wanted to learn firsthand how popular Apple products are made in plants in Southern China, and what he discovered there in the course of researching the show rattled his techno world.
“I still believe Apple makes the best products. They are exquisitely divine,” said the longtime Mac user by telephone from Washington, D.C., where he was performing the show. “But we sort of believe these things are assembled by robots. They’re largely made by human hands. And it’s the children, with the tiniest fingers, who mostly assemble the iPhones.”
Daisey’s interest in working conditions at the Chinese factories was piqued “a couple of years ago when I saw photos taken secretly in an iPhone factory, which got posted to an online forum. For me they were a revelation. I’d never thought in a deep way about how these devices are made.”
Daisey traveled to the remote Pacific island of Tanna to research his previous show, “The Last Cargo Cult” (which reflects on the lure and symbolism of money). But his trip to Shenzhen, China, was “an evolution. I spent a month there investigating. Because I dedicated the time to do it, stories opened up to me that I think the Western press has ignored.”
Alongside a translator, he spent a lot of time at the main gate of a factory run by the Taiwanese company Foxconn, the world’s largest contract maker of electronic gadgets.
“The place has more than 400,000 workers, and for days I talked with people coming out of the place. I met many workers who were 12, 13 years old. They’re not hidden.”
Daisey also was determined to penetrate one of the big factories located in South China’s booming “industrial zone” in Shenzhen.
“I used fake business cards and said I was a business entrepreneur interested in doing work with them,” he said. “So they showed me the dormitories, the factory floor, anything I wanted to see.”
And he met with members of “secret unions” in China, who want to change working conditions, like mandatory 10- to 16-hour shifts, and the use of child labor. “These unions are illegal, and if you get caught working with them you can go to prison for the rest of your life,” said Daisey.
So what did he uncover? “Let’s just say in the show I’m not telling the worst stories. What I wasn’t prepared for was how fully the system was designed to strip away people’s humanity.”
In “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” Daisey’s ethical critique extends beyond the assembly line to the business practices of companies like Apple, and to American consumers who turn a blind eye toward how the trendy devices we’ve come to rely on are fabricated.
“It is a complex situation, I totally agree. But we treat China like it’s a democratic country, and it’s not,” Daisey stressed. “So many Communist countries have fallen. China is still there. The difference is we support them by doing business with them, even when they’re oppressing their own citizens.”
The most horrifying thing, contends Daisy, “is that this doesn’t really have to do with money. It costs 80 cents to assemble an iPhone. Better labor conditions wouldn’t make a dent in these big companies.”
When “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” debuted at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in February, at least one patron was moved to action. It was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
Wozniak told the Bay Citizen news site, “I will never be the same after seeing that show. … I wound up asking myself a lot of internal questions. Are we all guilty? Maybe there are so many of us that we discard that thought by dilution of responsibility. … “
At an Apple shareholders meeting last month, the company’s acting CEO, Tim Cook, was asked about Daisey’s show. He said he hadn’t seen it but insisted Apple maintains “the highest standards” of worker safety in the factories it contracts with.
Though he is “re-evaluating” his own consumption of electronic devices, Daisey insists, “I’m not advocating a widespread boycott of Apple; the problem is deeper than that. Basically all the big electronic companies do this.
“I’m just using comedy and serious material to crack people’s defenses, to get us to a place where we’re emotionally and intellectually open to the truth.”
Daisey and his wife and director, Jean- Michele Gregory, already have taken the show to India, as well as U.S. theaters. After the Seattle run, they’ll bring it to Australia, and Daisey hopes to perform it in Hong Kong.
Daisey also is talking with Wozniak “about the possibility of creating a nonprofit to do oversight, independent inspections that don’t exist right now of the labor conditions in these foreign factories. Things can change. There could be cruelty-free and humane electronics. Then consumers can make more informed choices.”
If the reviews for the piece have been very positive, the question is sometimes raised: Is Daisey an artist? Or a political activist?
He doesn’t see a contradiction between the two. “This is good work,” he says, “and I’m glad to be doing it.”
Misha Berson: email@example.com