Typically seated at a desk with just a microphone, the gifted monologist Mike Daisey speaks to his audiences extemporaneously, leading them on surprisingly engrossing journeys across a wide range of topics—all filtered through the lens of his own personal experiences. His latest monologue is The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which opens at The Public Theater on Tuesday. The show is described as a "harrowing tale of pride, beauty, lust, and industrial design" in which Daisey "illuminates how the CEO of Apple and his obsessions shape our lives, while sharing stories of his own travels to China to investigate the factories where millions toil to make iPhones and iPods." Days after Jobs's death, we spoke with Daisey about his latest project
Interesting timing for your show. Obviously you knew that Steve Jobs was ill when you were working on this, so I imagine this hasn't come as a total surprise. But are you making changes to the show? And how do you feel about going forward with it so soon after Jobs's death? Well, I've been doing the show in different forms over 16 months and all over the planet so [for some of that time] there was the hope that he was in remission. He was doing all right when we started doing the show 16 months ago.
There will be changes to everything, changes to the fundamental nature of the monologue itself. You know when you're doing a show that's about a biographical figure—and that figure is vitally important to so many people because they hold his design decisions in their hands and they carry them in their pockets—that person passing from one life to the next reverberates through the entire work like a bell. It's going to change not only the work itself but also the context in which the work is received. So yeah, it has tremendous implications for the show and across the board.
So you're currently working to do rewrites? Well, I don't rewrite, but I am going to be changing the show.
When you say you don't rewrite what does that mean? The monologues aren't written, they're performed extemporaneously.
OK. But you do have notes? Yes, I do.
So how do they fit in your process? Well, the notes are an outline that's used as a sort of a focusing tool. I don't actually look at them during the performance very often because they're mostly useful to focus and change direction as I'm forming and building when I'm not on stage. And they're also there as a sign of the compact that exists between me and the audience, because in the theater we're so unused to things actually being live. Having any outline on stage is an attempt to communicate to the audience that this is actually living theater as opposed to dead theater, that it's happening in real time right in front of you.
Could you talk about the genesis of this play, or should I call it a play? Is it a monologue? We usually call them monologues since they have no characters and don't follow the rules that a play would follow. I wanted to talk about Apple and Steve Jobs my entire life because I've always been obsessed with Apple and with Steve Jobs. I feel very much like I've been engaged in a many-decades long design conversation with him through his devices that have played such a major role in my life. I never did a show about Steve Jobs or Apple because, frankly, I don't do shows because I want to talk about something. I do them because obsessions I have are in collision with one another. And I also have to believe that my culture needs to hear about some things.
A big hobby of mine is devices and technology. When I started researching I ran across these pictures on the web taken on iPhones by workers in plants, where they hadn't erased the firmware, and then the pictures were actually found by people who are looking at the cameras when they buy them from stores. I started thinking about how there was an ellipse in my life: that despite the fact that I understand an incredible amount for, an amateur, about how my devices are functioning and the chips that are inside of them and how they interact, I actually never thought about for a moment how they were actually made.
And I thought about how strange that was, considering I know more about how this device functions than any other device that I use in my life. I've spent all this time as an amateur learning about these things, so it was actually really strange to realize that I didn't know more. So that caused me to start researching Foxconn and the Special Economic Zone, and I really starting digging into these issues. And that's when I realized there was a monologue and I needed to go to Southern China and see these things for myself. That was an integral part: the witnessing of the story.
I don't want to ask a question that's going to give away things in the show, but what happened in China, what experiences did you have, and how did that affect you? Well, I mean, I experienced what's there for anyone to see if they choose to go. Shenzhen is a city that's largely unknown to people in the west, to people in America, despite the fact that it has 14 million people in it and it's the 3rd largest city in China and it makes all of our shit. I mean, it's a remarkable thing to realize that we're so disconnected from our manufacturing that all these things we own, we have no sense of how they're actually made.
It was really remarkable entering the bowels of the forges where all our stuff comes from and seeing what the labor conditions are like. And I live in the first world, I live a comfortable life, compared to the vast majority of the world. So I expected the conditions to be worse than what I was used to, but what I wasn't expecting was the massive degree of dehumanization and mechanization that is going into the systems as they exist. What I really was surprised by was the scale; I just didn't realize that it would be quite that way. I didn't fully understand that China is this fascist country run by thugs and that their collusions with our corporations create this special economic zone. The collision of corporatism, fascism, and capitalism that happens that zone is the blueprint of what I think corporations would like the future to look like. I think what happens in that zone is vitally important to understanding the shape of our world today.
Is that why you recently wrote in the Times that Steve Jobs ultimately failed to think different? Well, yes. It might seem like a controversial point of view but it's actually the only one that's logical. Truthfully, he had the power and capability to completely reform the electronics industry, and he was exactly the person to do it. He was exactly the person who would understand that a company that was already lauded for being green and eco-friendly could be in the position to let in independent inspectors and clean up how business is done, especially in the economic zone. He knew he could have done that, partly because I know that hundreds of people wrote him about this after seeing this monologue. And he chose not to.
Why do you think that is? I don't know. Why do we all sell out our ideals as we get older? I mean, he probably had other things he wanted to concentrate on, like selling iPhones at tremendous profit. And making sure his devices were incredibly well designed, which they are. The two things are not exclusionary though; it would not have taken that much effort to change the human rights abuses that are happening in the zone. A lot of them are very straightforward. You know, a worker at Foxconn died while I was there, after working a 34-hour shift. It doesn't take that much to prevent that kind of thing from happening. It takes a commitment to monitor what's happening in your factories 24/7, it takes a commitment to inculcate an atmosphere of basic respect where people don't work themselves to death.
I met hundreds of people whose joints in their hands had been disintegrating from Carpel Tunnel Syndrome from doing the same repetitive motion again and again and again. It doesn't take much to rotate people on the production line so that doesn't happen to them. But it does require that you view the people that work for you as human beings and not as animals. And the truth is that Voxconn and the other subcontractors in the Special Economic Zone, they don't view their employees that way. And Apple and the other electronics makers, they don't view them that way either. They don't think about them at all, and as a consequence they're abused.
And it's really discouraging when you understand that this isn't a question of economics, it isn't a question of how much it would cost to do these things, because it's actually very, very cheap. It's an issue that no one cares, so until people can tell them to care—since they've chosen to work beyond all regulations in the Special Economic Zone—until we can tell them to care and begin to take action, it will continue to happen. And so that's part of the landscape of the story.
Are you aware of any companies that are major players and have tried to make changes in the way that workers are treated? No, there aren't any. No conventional company that makes electronics on any kind of scale at all.
So it's a systemic problem and I just wonder what the excuses are for why this can happen, for why there can't be some start to... Well, you know how it is. There doesn't have to be an excuse. There will only start being excuses after someone calls them to account. At the moment there doesn't have to be an excuse because no one asks them, they don't have to say anything. It'd be against their interest to say anything, so they say nothing.
So Steve Jobs, the guy to responds to a lot of emails, didn't address any of this? Well, if you write to Apple they will say they have a supplier responsibility report that they put out every year and they will end the conversation with that. And if you read the supplier responsibility report, it's really well formatted, it makes clear that every single year about 50-60% of Apple's sub-suppliers use child labor. And Apple apparently slaps them all dutifully on the hand and says, "Don't do that." And then on the second violation they're fired. Yet somehow, every single year, 50-60% of Apple's sub-suppliers use child labor. I would say that's a systemic problem. I would say you're not seriously reforming if every year you have the same number and you don't consider that an issue.
Apple would say, "What are we supposed to do? We need to remain competitive, no one else is doing it." No one in the zone is willing to take leadership out of a sense of capitalistic cowardice. It requires vision to actually believe there should be human rights. And so, as it often does, it falls to people who are freer than most, which are people who live in the first world and who buy these devices, and are therefore culpable to how they are made, to try and hold our corporations to account for the things they do.
Where does that put you as a consumer? Have you thought about trying to divorce yourself from the system or renounce some of these products, when it comes to buying things? I've certainly thought about it a lot. I think that an important thing that I want to say is that we spend way too much time obsessing about the shit we buy. We really do. Part of being embedded in a consumerist culture and not understanding our actual power is making it so that the only decision that comes out of, say, how to address corporate malfeasance is, "What shit am I going to buy and how am I going to buy it?" Because the reality is what we do is far more important than what we buy. What I do is research and tell people about this problem. I do think it's important for each of us to try and square ethically what we do with the world we live in. It's a complex world and what I do, what I'm trying to do is I haven't upgraded anything since I went to Shenzhen. And I know that the forward march of technology means that that's probably not a viable option forever, but it's a viable option for now. And perhaps in the future I'll buy used electronics. We'll see.
Did Steve Jobs have any awareness of this show? Oh, yes he knew all about it. People sent him hundred of emails and he respond to a large number of them. And sometimes those people would forward those emails to me. It really varied, I mean we're all different depending on who's writing to us. We're different people in different times of the day. I talk about this in the monologue, in fact. I met him in 2002 and he's one of the sharpest people I've ever met, and he was dedicated to his design and his skill and his extreme competency.
He always wanted to be extremely great as a designer and make Apple great as a company, so he was certainly not ignorant of anything that happened. I think Steve knew exactly what he was doing and he made choices... He started a company that began making pirate boxes to hack into the telephone companies, and today it is the most locked-down computing system in the world, you know? He's come a long way from where he started, and some parts of that legacy are very exciting and fantastic, especially for someone like me who's followed Apple the entire time and saw it almost die in the mid-'90s. And some parts are heartbreaking. And I think that if Steve could see the arc of it from his youth to now I think he would acknowledge that he's fallen pretty short of a lot of the ideals he espoused as a youth, and a lot of the things Apple stood for when it began. It's a very different place.