The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey
A one-man show about Apple's dark side.
Photograph by AP Photo/The Public Theater, Stan Barouh.
Also in Slate: The Culture Gabfest discusses Steve Jobs.
Eight days ago, I received a call from the monologist Mike Daisey, whom I’ve been speaking with lately out of an interest in his work. The call was unexpected, and Daisey sounded weary and out-of-sorts. I wasn’t surprised by his mood. Since July of 2010, in cities from Hyderabad to Vancouver to Washington, Daisey has been performing an ambitious and heartfelt work titled The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, and 45 minutes earlier the news had arrived that Jobs was dead.
Many people who’d never met Jobs felt surprisingly bereft, but for Daisey the emotions were compounded by the fact that he wasn’t just contending with the loss of a ubiquitous public figure—he was dealing with the loss of the man who had occupied his brain for the better part of two years.
Much longer than that, actually. As Daisey explains in his show, a taped version of which he sent me this summer, he's been obsessed with Jobs ever since the 1980s, when, as a geeky adolescent in northern Maine, he spent hours tinkering with his parent’s new Apple IIc. “I am an Apple aficionado,” he intoned in that performance in his booming, voluble baritone. (Daisey performs without a script, so every performance is different.) “I am an Apple partisan. I am an Apple fanboy. I am a worshipper in the cult of Mac! I have been to the House of Jobs; I have walked through the stations of his cross; I have knelt before his throne!”
And yet Daisey’s relationship to Jobs and Apple has become significantly more complicated than that of his countless co-religionists, and those complications significantly more public. The bit about his Apple bona fides in “The Agony and the Ecstasy” is more disclaimer than boast, the ecstatic preface to what follows: an agonized narrative of his disillusionment and a vigorous effort to coax others out of the fold.
As Daisey told the story this summer, the germ of his doubt was a series of photographs taken at the Chinese factory where the iPhone is manufactured, inadvertently left on a device bound for America, and posted to an Apple discussion forum. The photographs were mundane—a worker on an assembly line, a cavernous factory floor—but they led Daisey to ask a question that he’d never considered before: How and where are these gadgets he adores, these marvels of industrial design and technological innovation, made?
This question in turn led Daisey on a gutsy adventure. With few leads and no journalistic credentials, he traveled to Shenzhen, in southern China, and, posing as a businessman, he infiltrated the heavily restricted, heavily guarded “special economic zone” where nearly all of the world’s electronics are produced. More than half of our electronics, including Apple’s, are made by a single company, Foxconn, at a single facility that employs 420,000 workers—a factory as populated as the city of Atlanta.
Despite dire risk (an AP photographer caught taking pictures outside Foxconn had recently been detained and beaten for two days before being released to his embassy), Daisey managed to interview dozens of these workers. He interviewed girls as young as 12 who worked crushing hours; he interviewed a man whose hand had been twisted into a claw from overuse; he interviewed a woman who had been blacklisted merely for requesting overtime pay.
In his show, Daisey is hardly shy in apportioning blame for these iniquities. He wants to implicate everyone: not just Beijing but the American companies that had requested and helped engineer the Shenzhen manufacturing hub; technology journalists who either ignored the labor question or, worse, allowed themselves to be duped by propaganda (Daisey is especially scornful about the author of a feckless Wired cover story from earlier this year: he calls him a “useful idiot,” Lenin’s term for the easily manipulable); and American consumers, himself included, who mindlessly salivate over the newest device yet remain in willful ignorance about the supply chain that delivers it to their doorstep.
But the primary target of Daisey’s show, as the title suggests, is the one person who had the power, the courage, and the financial clout to change things for the better. Steve Jobs was once idealistic and progressive, or at least he had pretensions along these lines. He spent time in an Indian ashram, he dropped acid, he pored over The Whole Earth Catalog; he studied Buddhism; he claimed that his countercultural roots were central to his thinking. Sure, he made that statement while working as the billionaire CEO of a publicly traded multinational corporation, but the crux of his charisma was his unpredictability! If anyone had the ability and authority to effect a sea change in “how we make our shit,” as Daisey put it, it was Jobs, and The Agony and the Ecstasy was delivered like an open letter. More than that, it was a letter-writing campaign. Until August, when Jobs resigned as Apple’s CEO, each performance ended with the distribution of Jobs’ email address to every member of the audience, and a plea to write to the man Daisey called “the only leader I have ever followed” about the issues raised.
And now Jobs was dead, and Daisey didn’t know what it meant. The show was set to begin its big Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in less than a week. Given the tremendous outpouring of grief associated with Jobs’ death, the fog of hagiography already descending, how would an audience response to such fervent, unflinching criticism? Would Daisey have to rework the show?
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll tell you one thing. Whatever I perform is going to be more emotionally charged than ever. It’s inevitable.”
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs has its official New York premiere on Tuesday, Oct. 18, but it began in previews on Oct. 11, and that night I went to see how Daisey had managed to assimilate Jobs’ death into the work. Ten minutes before the show was to start, I ran into Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey’s wife and director, on a riser in the audience, milling around and greeting friends in a slim black dress. I asked her whether Daisey had been laboring over his outline in the week since we’d spoken. “He’s been laboring over his outline for the last hour or so,” she said. This, I knew, was typical of Daisey: His style is to think deeply about something for days, weeks, months, and only scribble something down at the last moment. He prefers the impromptu, the improvisational, the extemporaneous—whatever makes the proceedings less like a set piece and more like a conversation. It usually makes for exciting theater.
When the show began (to the famous Mac OS chime), Daisey was seated at a sleek aluminum table with a raised glass top—a piece of furniture you might find holding MacBooks, iPads, and cloud-white wireless keyboards at any Apple Store in the world—in front of a simple metal framework lined with LCD lights. It was a striking if obvious design choice, but far more striking, as always, was the sight of Daisey himself. He is an immense man, a nearly cuboid presence with soft, thick hands, a round second chin, and an aircraft carrier of a brow that sweats extravagantly as he performs. Yet Daisey can be subtle and graceful in his movements. Sitting alone in the dark before a show, with only a few sheets of paper and a glass of water in front of him, he signals to the lighting technician that he is ready to begin by raising his palms to shoulder height and then lowering them slowly, gently, like a yoga instructor, to the surface.