Mike Daisey does not fear Steve Jobs, and expects no reprisals. In fact, he relishes the idea of Apple’s brilliant CEO catching a performance of his not entirely flattering new piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
“Please,” the acclaimed monologist tells the Straight, on the line from New Delhi. “Let him come. The laws are very, very clear. He has no grounds to do anything unless I’m committing libel, and to commit libel the standard in America is I have to be telling intentional falsehoods, and then the onus is on him to prove they were false. And oh, how I would love for his lawyers to come in and prove that what I saw in Shenzhen is false. I’d welcome that. So, I don’t think I’ll hear fucking anything from him. I think if he’s smart, he’ll keep his fucking mouth shut.”
A big part of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which the PuSh International Performing Art Festival is presenting next Thursday night (September 2) at the Vancity Theatre, is focused on Daisey’s hair-raising experiences in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen. There, half the world’s electronics are manufactured. And he’s passionate about the results of his research.
In a 12-year theatre career that moved the New York Times to declare him “one of the greatest solo performers of his generation”, Daisey has shown admirable grit in refusing to either shy away from danger or ignore his conscience. His epic 2006 piece, Great Men of Genius, contemplated, among other things, the life of L. Ron Hubbard, which is frankly never a very safe thing to do in public.
But turning his attention to Apple, its fabled CEO, and wider questions of technology and culture invited hazards that went further than merely pissing off the legal team of a “visionary asshole”, as Daisey characterizes Jobs. Or, for that matter, riling up the slightly cultish mob of Mac addicts out there—a group to which Daisey happily confesses he belongs. Far more perilous was Daisey’s month-long on-the-ground investigation of Shenzhen’s electronics factories, such as Foxconn, where all of our nifty MacBooks and iPhones are assembled by an 800,000-strong work force in conditions that British journalist Johann Hari likened to “human battery farming”.
Daisey arrived there last spring when Foxconn was facing an epidemic of worker suicides. The company’s response was to string nets between the dormitories where employees are stacked “like Jenga puzzle pieces” in 10-by-10-foot rooms outfitted with surveillance cameras. A bizarre rally followed, with the company handing out pink I (heart) Foxconn T-shirts and Spider-Man costumes.
“I think I was actually in China on iPhone 4’s release day,” Daisey recalls. “So I wasn’t available to wait in line at my Apple citadel somewhere in America to have it delivered into my hands. Beyond that, it’s fascinating that everyone in the West has obsessed over whether the antenna drops out if you touch the corner of the phone.” Daisey’s misgivings about the product were a little more hard-core. He was “interviewing people whose friends have killed themselves at the plant or who have been beaten by Foxconn security for 12 hours because they lost an iPhone prototype, and then killed themselves. It’s been amazing getting a real sense of the human cost of it.”
Daisey had to go undercover to get his story, which he’ll share in detail in The Agony and the Ecstasy. “With fascism, you get no fucking journalism,” he says, explaining that he infiltrated the walls of Shenzhen by presenting himself as a businessman under a slew of bitterly funny fake company names like Panic International and Danger Measurements. Amazingly, he got away with it. “Pretty clearly,” he says, “it was a binary proposition if I’d gotten into trouble. I’d probably still be in jail now.”
When he emerged, Daisey was bent on using his work to agitate for better labour conditions. “I don’t advocate boycotting and I do believe passionately that Apple makes fantastic products,” he says. “And a large part of the arc of the show is my own journey as someone who loves technology very, very much. It’s been incredibly enlightening and painful to see the true circumstances in which things are made, and then understand that the objects are still as lovely as they are. But now I have to reckon with their actual cost.”
Daisey views The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs as an attempt to tackle the complexities of “this new world”. But he also acknowledges that there are hard truths out there, one of them being that China’s Special Economic Zones allow corporatism to run rampant. “And that is possible because we in the West have chosen to be complicit with a fascist country run by thugs,” he states. “We choose to participate in it.”
And then there’s Jobs himself, whose rise Daisey traces through a mix of storytelling and anecdotes over the course of the show, and the truths behind his heroic persona. “He’s changed our way of seeing,” Daisey reckons “I don’t know who else you could talk about in technology today who would be remotely as interesting.”
But he also compares him to that most charming of psychopaths—Willy Wonka. “Children are murdered in hideous, fucked-up ways,” Daisey elaborates. “Contract workers come out and do song-and-dance numbers about how the children deserve what happened to them. Willy Wonka is clearly in the middle of it, but he’s never implicated in anything. He has this incredible charisma that makes you actually want him to succeed in all of his fiendish plans.”
It’s probably worth noting that although a chronic tech head, Daisey still hasn’t upgraded to a scrumdiddlyumptious iPhone 4.