Just before I went in to the Public Theater to see “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” I had to show my companion how to turn off her new Iphone. When the show ended, we turned them on. And felt bad. There’s a moment where a Chinese worker sees an Ipad turned on for the first time. “It’s like magic,” he breathes. The worker is crippled through repetitive movements on a factory line. The piece is a rant, often funny, often breathtaking, always disturbing. And unforgettable.
Mike Daisey’s monologue on Steve Jobs’s life, and his own trip to China, where Apple products are made, was in the works long before Jobs died. His death may have sharpened interest in the piece, but Daisey pulls no punches. There’s respect for the dead, and there’s concern for the living. If you’re reading this, you’re using a computer or an electronic device, which means you’re already complicit in the horrifics of labor in Shenzhen province. It isn’t only Apple, Daisey makes clear. It just feels worse that it’s Apple also, because Apple inspires such love, such “nice guy computer” loyalty. And Daisey was a True Believer. His show runs at the public through Dec. 4.
Daisey is unique– a big guy with a plastic face who tells stories from behind a table. He works from notes, so the script changes a little bit each night. And he’s funny, particularly when he’s remembering something that startled him or made him mad, in a Jack Black kind of way. He tells us up front that he was a “worshipper in the house of Mac,” who, to relax, sometimes took his Mac Pro apart, blew air into it to clean it, and put it together again. “If you have never thought deeply about your choice of Operating System, you may be living an unexamined life.” Steve Jobs was almost a divine figure who could create a need in people for items they never knew they wanted. Mac, he tells us, was a religion. And when Daisey began to think, that became a problem, as it is in any religion.
He tells us about Steve Jobs, the hippie turned techno libertarian, and how he manipulated his partner Steve Wozniak into rushing a project that he later discovered didn’t really need to be rushed. Genius, yes, but also, very dangerous. And it’s from there that Daisey begins telling us about Shen Jien, a city that “looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself.” It’s where 52% of all electronics are made. He goes there and hires an interpreter, pushing his way into the factory where he quickly meets underage workers. “In the first two hours of my first day,” he says, he met a 13-year old. “Do you really think Apple doesn’t know?
The piece is disturbing and enlightening. Workers are on for 16 hour shifts. A worker died after an 84-hour shift which, Daisey explains, is not unusual. Joints disintegrate from repetition– something that could easily be avoided by shifting workers around, “but nobody cares.”
Sometimes the intercutting of Jobs’ career with Daisey’s experience feels odd, as when he suddenly shifts back to the failed Next tablet (which is, however, hilarious). Still Next led to object-oriented programming and OSX, and Apple’s utter control over its
machines. “You will use them, and they will own you,” Daisey says. Daisey also addresses counter-arguments– companies would lose a fractional amount if they used American workers; the human rights issues were not really addressed (wages were raised, but then the factories charged for rent, and so on). Finally Daisey’s hero-worship of Jobs can’t quite leave him– he even reveals a wish that Jobs was toying around with the problem to find a solution. But finally, he has to conclude that he wasn’t. He’s left seeing blood welling up under his keys. You will, too.
Jean-Michele Gregory directs with an eye for rhythm and build, so that the lack of physicality never feels like a lack. Seth Reiser’s scenery and lighting design is high-tech and sensitive, like the play itself.
Daisey does include a handout about what you can do. One suggestion? “You can think different about upgrading.” Another is to speak to Apple by emailing CEO Tim Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” runs at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street. Tickets are available at the Public’s website or by calling (212) 967-7555.