Monday, September 13, 2010

TBA festival: Mike Daisey pulls the curtain on Steve Jobs

By Barry Johnson

Mike Daisey calls Steve Jobs, the master of the Apple empire, many things in his monologue, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs." A common epithet in the show is "mad genius," for example, but he also names him "Alpha Geek," "Visionary Asshole," and "Brutal Taskmaster."  But maybe the most significant for us and the show is "Giant in Our Mythology."

What powers does this mythic giant have? "Steve Jobs is the Master of the Forced Upgrade," Daisey said at his TBA performance Sunday night.  And what does this mean on the atomic level? Until Jobs made it so, "I didn't know I needed a laptop so thin I could slice a sandwich with it." In his famous keynote speeches, Jobs "shows us the future." Or at least our technological future. These are wonderful powers indeed, and they have helped build Apple into the mightiest of technological forces.

By this time, just about all of us have had to develop a "theory" to deal with the great celebrity tycoons who have emerged in our celebrity culture.  It's almost necessary -- they occupy such a prominent place in our cultural mythos. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Donald Trump, Mark Cuban and Steve Jobs, to name some of the best known (I almost added Bernie Madoff, but he occupies a different slot, I think... for now) are important for their various roles in different products or ideas, sure, but they are also part of the prevailing myth, financial gods with powers that transcend the normal or even the para-normal.

We watch them for signs, we parse their words as though they were divine oracles, we acknowledge that they occupy a realm that we can't hope to reach, though we might fantasize about it. (Oh, if I could only be Zeus for a day.)

Daisey's performance -- one part comedy, one part investigative journalism, one part research into the history of Apple -- looks behind the curtain at the machine that produces those thin laptops and sleek phones, obsessively perfect in all their details. Jobs is his Wizard, but Oz isn't a make-believe fairyland that puts up with the occasional pollution caused by a Wicked Witch or two. Oh no. It's a Chinese city of 14 million, Shenzhen, and it has an industrial zone that produces many of the world's high-tech products. One of its companies, Foxconn, has almost half-a-million employees, and they make some of Apple's signature products, from iPhones to iPads.

Daisey's performance is "simple," with a set-up familiar to anyone who ever saw the late Spalding Gray's monologues: a man, a chair, a desk, water, a few notes. Unlike Spalding's shows, though, which got their humor from his caress of his own neuroses, it is less about Daisey's psychological state, than it is about his determination to understand how his iPhone is made.

There is laughter along the way, mainly from Daisey's delivery rather than from lines that are intrinsically funny. And Daisey himself is never far from the action. Even his recounting of Apple's ups and downs if so full of Daisey-isms that we never forget that his account doesn't pretend to be "objective." But for all the humor, it comes with a point -- or a sting. Because Daisey, a self-confessed technophile, is about the puncture his own balloon. Those sleek Apple products he loves don't arrive with a good deal of pain and suffering, not to mention death.

We know this, of course. Or surmised it. Do any of us really believe that at the great Chinese factories of Shenzhen employees work a humane eight-hour day for a humane wage? That child labor isn't involved? That workers have any rights whatsoever? I don't think so, even if we haven't read the stories about the suicides at Foxconn.  And if we have any idealistic dreams about it all, Daisey wakes us from them -- and plunges us into the nightmare of working the floor at these factories, the 15 and 16 hour days, the repetitive work, the infrequent breaks. One worker died after working a 32 hour shift while Daisey was in Shenzhen.

Yes, Daisey was there. He interviews 11-year-old employees outside the gates of Foxconn; he poses as an American businessman and tours other factories (maybe the single funniest bit involves his description of sitting through a Chinese power point presentation); he talks to member of a secret labor union.  Think of it as investigative journalism, a man and his translator, learning all he can about how his beloved products are made.

What's the point? Not to dissuade us from using our technology, because Daisey himself can't stop doing that. No, he wants us to change Apple and Steve Jobs: When we exit, we receive an action plan for doing just that. Because, come on, if WE have an idea that those factories are closer to work farms than anything like an American factory, then Apple surely knows.

At his Chat about his work Sunday afternoon, Daisey explained the overall thread running through his monologues at least twice. The first time, at the beginning of the talk, was a sanitized version of the last time: "How do we live an ethical life in the framework of this much shit?"

Why hasn't attention formed around this issue here, the labor camps of Asia? Daisey blames the Western press: "The failure of Western journalism is so complete," he says.  But I'm inclined to think that at least two other factors are at work. The first is we don't really WANT to look behind the curtain to see how our cheap laptops, mobile phones and sneakers are made in China and the rest of the Third World.  We'd rather marvel at their design and functionality than worry about factory conditions. Daisey mentions this during his monologue.

The second is a little more disturbing,  than the first: Maybe we don't want to know how things are made HERE, in the United States, either, from our mass-produced meat to our own factory floors. How they are designed and the finished product, yes. The suffering that goes into them? Not so much. Our social obligations? Our ethical obligations? Hey, what Daisey said about technology companies can go for all of us: We all become radical libertarians when it suits us.

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