Apple fan's faith put to the test (Q&A)

Mike Daisey's new monologue, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," chronicles his love affair with Apple products, a revealing visit to China, and why people need to think about where our devices come from.

Mike Daisey traveled to Shenzhen, China, last year to find out for himself about the working conditions at Foxconn. Ursa Waz

Editor's note, March 16, 2012: "This American Life" announced today that it's retracting a story it did recently about working conditions at Foxconn that included an interview with Mike Daisey as well as an excerpt from his monologue "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." It said it was doing so because of "numerous fabrications" it found. CNET's Josh Lowensohn has the latest story here . CNET has contacted Mike Daisey for clarification and to expand on the statement he posted to his Web site today, but he has not yet responded. A recent investigative report by The New York Times about working conditions in Apple's supply chain in China can be found here.

It'd be easy to label monologist Mike Daisey a theater geek, but he's a tech geek through and through. His hobby is technology. He's obsessed with reading Apple rumors sites. Sometimes just to relax, Daisey will field-strip his MacBook Pro. He even once played the role of "fat geek" in a Microsoft industrial video. And he worked at Amazon.com in the late '90s, which he detailed in his show and subsequent book "21 Dog Years."

In his new show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," Daisey chronicles his longtime love affair with Apple and, in parallel, recounts the rise of the company. It is, at times, hilarious. But it's also sobering--sobering when he turns his focus on the harsh working conditions at Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China, where some Apple devices are assembled. And Apple isn't alone among tech companies in manufacturing products in China, nor in using Foxconn.

Apple did not respond to two requests for comment. Foxconn also did not respond to a request for comment. A report earlier this month by Chinese environmental groups criticized Apple for its response to a spate of employee suicides at Foxconn last year. In response to that story, a Hong Kong-based Apple representative told Bloomberg: "Apple has had an extensive supplier auditing program since 2006 and we have lots of information available through our Web site."

Daisey has performed the monologue in such places as Portland, Ore.--where I saw the show--and Hyderabad, India. The show has settled in for a run at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California, in repertory with Daisey's "The Last Cargo Cult," through February 27.

In a phone interview last week, Daisey talked about what led him to travel to Shenzhen, where he heard devastating stories from Foxconn factory workers, and why he thinks change is possible. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You did a four-part monologue called "Great Men of Genius." Where would Steve Jobs fit in among Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla, and L. Ron Hubbard?
Mike Daisey: He's clearly a genius. And he does fit the mold of a number of people who I've been engaged by and fascinated by in my career--which is people who are, to a degree, megalomaniacal, who have a strong, intense vision for the shape of the world, and then they use their considerable gifts to implement that vision in the world.

In your new show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," you say that your chosen OS is a window into how you see the world. You compare it to a religion, that you have faith, and sometimes that faith is tested. How would you describe your faith in Apple lately?
Daisey: It's complex. My faith in Apple design and their belief in cleanness and simplicity is not doing too poorly, although their desire to tie all their products into an ecosystem that locks people into their sort of way of life is troubling. Something that starts out enabling your users to have a lot of freedom and a lot of ease of use by making really clean, wonderful aesthetic suggestions, like anything, as it becomes more and more complete and overarching, you start to feel strait-jacketed. So there's that side of it.

The deeper side for me is the circumstances under which the devices are made and that is more troubling and complicated, and stretches across far more than Apple and implicates the entire electronics industry. I find myself very conflicted these days. I find it very painful.

The idea for "The Agony and the Ecstasy" came to you a few years ago after seeing some pictures of a Foxconn factory worker that hadn't been wiped from an iPhone before it was sold. You couldn't stop looking at them. Why did they have such an impact on you?
Daisey: I think they had an impact on me for the same reason that they should have an impact on any conscious person. Because if you're truthful with yourself I think most people in our culture, especially people associated with technology, would recognize that they never think about where their technology comes from--ever.

Daisey is performing 'The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' at Berkeley Rep through February 27. Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com

And it's a remarkable thing given that those of us who are involved and fascinated by technology spend a huge amount of time thinking about the capabilities of the technology, exactly what the specifications are, getting very granular with every detail of the technology except the circumstances under which it was made. I actually think that's a tremendous piece of cognitive dissonance. An entire culture actually has to grow up and work very hard so that we don't think about those circumstances. Though I know a great deal about Apple equipment and it's been my only hobby for many years, at that moment I realized that I had never thought in a systematic way about how these devices were made. That really struck me in a real blinding instant.

At what point did you decide to go to China?
Daisey: I think it was a year and a half later. Things had to grow and develop. As the idea grew, like all the monologues grow, it caused me to do more research and more investigations. I don't remember the exact timeline, but it became clear after some time that I was going to have to actually go to Shenzhen if I wanted to get at the heart of things.

In Shenzhen you visited factories and talked to Foxconn employees. With the help of a translator you interviewed workers, some as young as 11, during shift changes over the course of many days. Given the heavy security there and the suicides, were you surprised by how many workers were eager to talk to you?
Daisey: Yes and no. I was surprised because all the journalists I'd talked to before going, both in America and Hong Kong, had assured me that no one would ever want to talk to me, that they were going to be incredibly closed off and silent. I think that there's a disconnect between what we think people are going to do and then what they actually do. The only way to find out how people actually feel and what they're actually going to do is to go and ask the questions. So when I thought about it afterwards it didn't seem that surprising that people might want to talk about the circumstances of their lives, just as people like to talk about the circumstances of their lives everywhere.

Perhaps--I don't want to be too speculative--but it has crossed my mind that it's very convenient for journalists if we convince ourselves that no one will talk to them, then that saves us the difficulty of having to actually do our jobs. We just convince ourselves that no one's there and no one's going to talk. Then you don't even have to go.

This show is not just storytelling. It's a call to action too. After the show, audience members are given information on what they can do to try to get Apple and other electronics makers to change working conditions in Shenzhen. What made you decide to take that extra step?
Daisey: How could it be otherwise? Frankly, it's the least I can do. It doesn't even seem like it'd be ethically responsible to perform a show illuminating these things and proposing that there is a chance for us to turn things around, to begin the process of waking up, and then not provide some ideas toward what that might entail. It would actually just be irresponsible as a citizen.

What are you hearing from people who have taken some of the steps you suggest?
Daisey: Just today some people have been calling Apple's customer relations and using the information I gave them to get to an actual person. The [customer relations] people seem discomfited and made nervous by the fact that people are calling. Before his leave of absence, people were e-mailing Steve Jobs. Sadly he's not in charge of day-to-day operations now so I'm not telling people to do that right now. But back in the fall when people wrote to him, a large number of them received responses which they then forwarded to me. Steve Jobs certainly knows about the situation. I have no doubt that everyone involved is well aware of the situation. What they need to become aware of is the growing consciousness of the public and how they feel about how these devices are made.

In the past, have you contacted Steve Jobs yourself?
Daisey: I don't need to contact Steve Jobs. Steve Jobs knows where to find me. The show is running near his house, so if Steve Jobs wants to see it he can. In an e-mail, he responded to someone who wrote to him and said I think that Mike doesn't appreciate the complexity of the situation.

I appreciate that because, first, it acknowledges that there's a situation. So then we're just bickering about response to the situation. I would be interested in that dialogue. I'd be interested in anyone from Apple coming to talk to me and we can talk about how I met 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds working at the plant on their devices and interviewed them, and they can explain to me what complexity it is that I'm not understanding. I'd be very interested in that conversation.

We've gotten so used to ever-cheaper tech gadgets. Is it also going to take a change in our culture as consumers to produce better working conditions? Do we need to be willing to pay more?
Daisey: This is one of the saddest parts of this entire story that people don't fully appreciate, and is actually focused on more in the version of the show that's happening now versus the one in Portland. It's actually almost totally pathetic because the news coverage always talks about this like we cannot speak of any of this without endlessly talking about the cost that we'll be paying for the devices.

The vast majority of the people I spoke with who had serious problems in Shenzhen, their problems are because there are no labor standards, because we let our corporations be loose there and do whatever they want to the people. Labor laws don't actually equal incredibly increased expenses. For example, while I was in the country there, someone worked a 32-hour shift at Foxconn and then died from overwork. It does not require a lot more money to keep people from working to death.

So I think it's the height of disingenuousness when people raise their hands to say, well, [the devices] will be so much more expensive now. They don't know anything. The problem is that people making these devices are not valued as human beings. They're valued as machines. They're machines that are used until they break down and then they're thrown away. The heart of it has much less to do with how much people are making per hour and a lot more to do with the circumstances under which the devices are made.

"I love Apple more than any other company that has ever existed. I love the design. I love the devices, and I think it's a rare opportunity for someone to see someone who speaks their language in a context where they might learn about something, they might be shaken awake to something that impacts every part of their lives."

When I was in the country, Foxconn eventually responded to the rash of suicides. Their big response was that they raised wages across the board by 30 percent. And it was amazing to watch all the press, all the tech press; they said, well, they're dealing with it. Not one person thought for a moment about how if you can raise your labor costs 30 percent overnight without blinking then something is wrong. No one thought that. The lack of critical thinking on these issues from the journalists who ostensibly cover them, it is appalling. We have not done our job to cover this story in any way. As a consequence, people do not understand what's at stake or what's happening.

You don't think boycotts are the answer, but have your buying habits changed since your trip to China?
Daisey: They have. It's all a work in progress, like I suspect it is for everyone. I take a lot less joy in technology than I did, so I find myself making less impulsive purchases. I find myself really weighing the cost, not just the cost in money for me, but the cost of the device being made. And that changes the equation about whether or not I need it.

Last summer you took the show to India, including in Hyderabad where the audience included Microsoft employees and business students. What kind of feedback did you get?
Daisey: A lot of it was very illuminating for me. I didn't realize how the show is a product of my own culture, so I didn't realize how much of a problem Americans have with China. I hadn't fully understood that we are so terrified of China. We are terrified of what it signifies. We are terrified about the future. We're terrified about losing power. We're terrified about our ethical implications, but we don't want to talk about any of these things. So we're very, very conflicted about China.

But in India they're not conflicted about China. It's fascinating for them, but they know these stories already. I had these educational events while I was there and talked to 40 to 50 people at a time. We'd all sit in circles and talk about storytelling and the nature of this kind of performance. I would tell these students, teachers, academics, and people in technology that the average American has never heard the word Shenzhen, that they have no idea what city that is. No one could believe me. They thought that was the most ludicrous thing they had ever heard, the idea that we could be so dislocated that we don't know the name of the city where all our [stuff] comes from. I think they're right about that.

You work from an outline, not a script. How much has the show changed since you first performed it last summer? In light of the news that Steve Jobs is taking another medical leave, have you made any notable changes in the show?
Daisey: It changes constantly. It's been evolving since we started working on it. And there have been changes since he left day-to-day operations at Apple, but it's actually hard to tell if those changes are directly connected to that news. That news is huge but at the same time, [the show] sort of traces the arc of an era at Apple with Steve that is ending. And it posits this transformation from the hobbyist to the consumer, and it sort of posits that that transformation is pretty much complete now.

I feel like Steve leaving day-to-day operations at Apple is really just the period at the end of that sentence. It just intensifies the circumstances under which the show is already making its arguments, that an era of titans in technology who have verve and personality is passing into history and in its place is corporatism and all of its machinery. And sadly, those titans didn't succeed in having a vision to make a humanist future. That thing that Steve Jobs dreamed of as a young man, he sold that dream out. He didn't achieve that at all. I'd say that's his greatest failing. He may not recognize it as such but I'm confident that in time the world will. That a company that espouses such humanist values to have done business as usual, to have failed so entirely to "think different," I don't think they'll be judged well historically for that. Unless, of course, they'd like to change.

And I think change is eminently possible and that's the whole reason that I want to put pressure on them and the rest of the electronics industry. We are the sum of the choices we make. This isn't even about dollars and cents in many cases. If the companies put people on the ground, were dedicated to these ends, actually believed that it was important that workers be treated humanely, if they actually did those things, change would occur. I just need to raise the consciousness of people until we as consumers are asking these questions full-throatedly back to the companies. And then I suspect they will begin to fully wake up.

The beginning of the show's run at Berkeley Rep coincided with Macworld. Was there a conscious decision to do it then?
Daisey: It's mostly coincidental. We were already talking to Berkeley Rep about when they were thinking of doing the show. But I definitely took into account Macworld when looking at where the opening of the show would be so that the people going to Macworld who are very devoted to Apple would have an opportunity, if they're feeling adventurous, to hear the story. Because I love Apple. I love Apple more than any other company that has ever existed. I love the design. I love the devices, and I think it's a rare opportunity for someone to see someone who speaks their language in a context where they might learn about something, they might be shaken awake to something that impacts every part of their lives. My hope is some of the people, even if they're wary, even if they're feeling a little suspicious, might take a chance in coming onboard. I think they would really gain a lot if they were willing to do that. That was the hope, to extend an olive branch and open a door.

How do you get people to the theater in the Digital Age?
Daisey: I'll tell you the secret: it's easier. It's easier for me anyway. I don't know what everyone else in the theater is going to do. I don't know what people are going to do who do traditional plays. I like a lot of traditional plays, but I like even more my theater to be live and living and relevant. The truth is, many people in technology don't appreciate this, when we speak to one another on our phones, even this conversation, the bandwidth of this connection is so thin compared to the bandwidth in a room in a living performance that is actually being spoken in front of you, that is not scripted, that is composed in the air between the audience and I. The bandwidth is so much more in those spaces than it is through any of the technology we know. I love technology. [But] it's entirely insufficient for what I need it to do at this time. It can't even remotely approach the live experience. I need that live experience because I believe even if I reach less people it opens the chance that I might reach them more deeply.

I believe very strongly in the live experience because if I did not, I would make YouTube clips of the show and I would post them. And I'd be like, I'm all done. Instead I really believe in the refining fire of going through the show night after night. I learn about my ideas and my passions. I learn about my arguments by doing them again and again and in different ways, shifting and changing them. It's a remarkable way to live. It's a pleasure and it's an honor to get to do it with live audiences. And that's why I make the work I do.

About the author

Anne Dujmovic is an associate editor at CNET News. After working more than a dozen years in newspapers, including a seven-year stint at the San Jose Mercury News, Anne migrated north to Portland, Ore. There, she honed her pastry-making skills as an apprentice. Although she's returned to journalism, she still misses the free pastries. E-mail Anne.

 

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