Mike Daisey, called a “master storyteller” by the New York Times, has developed a special blend of personal history and gonzo journalism in his hilarious and touching monologues. This time around, Daisey narrows his laser-sharp wit on the empire of Apple in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, playing through Dec. 4 at The Public Theater at Astor Place.
Starting out as a techie and devoted worshipper of all things Jobs, a chance sighting of photos of an iPhone assembly line compelled Daisey to voyage to Shenzhen, the Chinese city where many Apple products are made. What he found on the expedition was shocking: factories that hold 430,000 people, 13-year-olds working over 12-hour shifts and twenty-something workers crippled by the chemicals used to clean iPhone screens. Daisey, once a worshipper at the altar of the upgrade, found himself forever changed by his most recent shows.
Is this piece a departure from your previous work, in terms of focusing on broader cultural and social issues?
A number of them have been in this vein, like If You See Something Say Something. It is a form of what you might call journalism—I research these broader issues and canvass people. Not every monologue is this kind of monologue, but I have been tending to do this for a while now.
Why do you think your work is going in this direction?
I think in large part I am interested in stories that I feel our culture is telling.
The Steve Jobs biography just came out—it is about 700 pages long. It is a comprehensive view of him, but through one lens. If we put on a different lens, Jobs’ story is fundamentally one about a man who made things. In the book there is not even one paragraph about how these things were made. Those are the stories that bind us together, but it is hard to see them and what they are.
Throughout the piece you mention “seeing” and how we are often blind to the things in front of us. I noticed that as the show ended, people whipped out their i-devices, but I bet everyone felt differently about them after seeing your piece.
That is the idea of the metaphor shift. Everything is back the same as it was a moment before, but now we see things in a new way and it changes our world. It changes the dialog.
Something that resonated is how Apple is helping to continue this First/Third World socioeconomic dynamic, which seems like a similar narrative to the Industrial Revolution. Looking at his work through this lens, would you say Steve Jobs was truly as revolutionary as some might say, if this narrative seems to be repeating itself?
This echoes something I wrote about in a New York Times op-ed column. I think if we are going to export these jobs [to other countries], we have an ethical responsibility to uphold fair labor practices. Steve Jobs choosing not to do this was actually the conservative thing to do.
Shenzhen invokes all of the images of the Industrial Revolution, but we didn’t need it to work this way. To say that this is simply the way a global economy works is an inherently false worldview. These changes are very recent. Shenzhen has really only existed for the last 30 years, and the factory was made only in the last decade or so. The whole reason the systems works the way it does now is to avoid U.S. labor laws. Change is not only possible, it is inevitable.
It is interesting that the sense of apathy is changing even now. I see it doing this monologue…and through Occupy Wall Street. There is a paradigm shift. People are remembering that it is possible to protest something.
What can people do to more ethically interact with Apple products?
One can educate oneself. There is a lot of information that is available about how this world works and Chinese labor laws. A large part of our responsibility is thinking about our upgrade cycle. I, for instance, haven’t upgraded anything since I went to Shenzhen.
Did you feel a quick pang of lust when the iPhone 4S was announced?
It was like a pang, but I am doing OK. It was far from torture.
Monologist Mike Daisey turns his eye to his beloved Apple and its creator, in the The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, extended through Dec. 4 at The Public Theater. Photo courtesy of The Public Theater
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