Mike Daisey takes on Apple and Steve Jobs

Armed only with a glass of water, a skeletal outline, and perhaps a rush of adrenaline, monologist Mike Daisey delivers unscripted, hours-long meditations on life, theater, and politics. Embellishing his astute grasp of trade politics and technology with personal stories and gonzo journalism, Daisey weaves intricate yarns that are at once moving, informative, and darkly comic.Daisey is in Washington this month to perform The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a two-hour tale of a professed Apple lover’s growing disenchantment with the company over its labor practices overseas. Daisey draws not only on his considerable knowledge of Apple products, but also on several weeks he spent investigating a factory in Shenzhen, China, a focal point in a spate of worker suicides last year. While he retains a tormented affection for Apple’s technological innovations, he concludes that he can no longer ignore the hands that assemble these products – and invites his audiences to do the same.

Daisey spoke with me recently about Apple, trade, technology, and the theater.

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Mike Daisey (Photo: kevinberne.com)

At what point did your fascination with Apple become an inspiration to write a monologue?

First, it’s important to specify that the monologues aren’t written – they’re performed extemporaneously. They’re created anew each night over and over again from an outline I use on the table in front of me.

Second, the truth is that I’ve been obsessed with Apple my entire life. I believe that the Apple vision – which is really Steve Jobs’ vision – has defined the computing era as it’s happened so far. Steve Jobs is personally responsible for several major revolutions in how we see the world through technology, massive changes in the dominant interface we use. So you really can’t tell the story of human interface design, and of industrial design in the technological era, without talking about Steve Jobs. Since I wanted to talk about those things in a deep way – and I wanted to talk about the secret story we don’t talk about often, which is the circumstances in which these things are made – Apple becomes the focal point.

Knowing what you know now, how do you feel when you see Steve Jobs roll out a new Apple product?

I feel a lot like I used to feel. I think that they’re the industry leaders, and I’m constantly amazed and excited to see what they’re designing and where they’re going.

At the same time, I can’t ignore anymore the truth of the situation. I feel a degree of heartbreak, because Apple is one of the most profitable companies in the world. It has more than enough clout and resources to make very humane changes in the way in which their devices are made. They have the power to do that immediately, and at the moment they are choosing not to in favor of profit and the status quo.

So it’s hard, it’s very hard, because I know that they’re all good people (like everyone is good people), but fundamentally they’re perpetrating some very terrible things.

Tim Cook, Apple’s Chief Operating Officer, launched what the Los Angeles Times described as a “fervent defense” of the company and its supply lines in response to a question about this monologue. Is this just a public relations move?

They certainly pay a lot of lip service, but wake me up once there are independent, outside verifications of their working conditions. I don’t think that Apple, with its current track record, has a leg to stand on as someone I would trust. Nor would any other electronics company, all of whom work in the current system in China. Apple’s own supplier responsibility reports list dozens and dozens of violations of child labor regulations. They themselves admit that they can’t control their supply chain. So I have no idea why I would trust those people to continue to police themselves. There’s no reason to believe that they will ever reform fully until there’s outside verification.

The appeal of these new Apple products is that they’re kind of awesome, right? They’re sleekly designed. They do any number of cool, fun, and occasionally useful things. And more than any other technology currently available, they dissolve the space between the people who use them.

But are they creating entirely new disconnects? Is the supposed perfection of these products an obstacle to our willingness to understand where they come from?

The obstacle is a shift that’s happened, embodied more in Apple than anywhere else. Computing began as a hobbyist movement that empowered users to hack and control their technology. In the world we’re in now, corporations like Apple see themselves more as licensers. They license the technology to the users, who are forbidden to interfere with the technology.

An iPhone for instance uses a lockdown system that never allows the users to touch the operating system or install their own applications. Anything users do install has to be downloaded through Apple’s servers. So Apple serves as a sort of guardian – choosing, for instance, to forbid pornography or anything else they find offensive. They exert a draconian control over every aspect of these devices, and they charge a hefty toll for using them. That control, that wall guarding the system, is going to lock up the people that are inside of it. It turns something that used to be a tool for understanding our world into something that we simply consume. It makes people more passive.

It’s a regretful development, and a theme throughout the monologue is talking about this journey. Apple, a company founded by pirates, has become the most locked down technology company in the world.

I can get fair trade clothing or local food if I feel like looking for it. But I can’t do this with my computer. What’s a conscientious Apple consumer to do?

Fundamentally, there are no fair trade electronics; the entire electronic supply chain has been tainted by an inhumane use of labor that is in violation of most human rights accords. But the truth is that instead of being powerless, consumers actually have a tremendous amount of power. Corporations will do what they perceive the consumers want.

That’s the whole reason we have environmental reform creeping into our electronics manufacture. That’s the only reason Apple tries to make its electronics more environmentally friendly today. That’s the only reason change ever happens with corporations, which are inherently amoral. The only reason for change is when they perceive their bottom line to be affected.

Consumers can begin by informing themselves. Most consumers, including myself before I really started examining these things, never thought about any of these things in a deep way.  The first step is to actually think about them. The next is to set measured goals toward change by communicating these ideas to other people and to advocate change on a local level. In a very specific way, many of us who are enchanted by technology often upgrade with great abandon. But it’s frequently not actually wise to do so — there’s a huge premium on brand new electronics – but further, it isn’t ethically sensible. Paying attention to the human cost of these devices can cause people to be more stringent in how they acquire new technology. That can yield large results; people have a great deal of power.

In a survey taken after one performance of this monologue, 23 percent of audience members said that what they heard from you would affect their future technological purchases. Does this strike you as, well, low?

First you should understand the tyranny of all surveys. The blog that originally ran that survey doesn’t specify that it was a survey of something like 48 people. So as a data point it’s effectively worthless, and it really shouldn’t have been published.

Even if it were valid, if 23% of people who view me speaking for two hours about the truth of the situation – one out of four people – actually reconsider their technology purchases, that would be a serious problem for Apple as this message continues to propagate. So that doesn’t seem low at all.

We’re talking here about products that can collapse space. But in a theater, people fill space. What’s the significance of giving this performance in person as opposed to, say, broadcasting it over the Internet?

It’s a live performance, so there’s an inherent depth of connection that doesn’t exist in transmission. I work extemporaneously, so the presence of the people in the room, our gestalt together, influences and directs in a very literal way the course of events throughout the evening. The things that I speak of, the way I speak of them, change in response to the people in the room and my relationship with them. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s actually the core of the theatrical experience. The reason I work in the theater is that I believe it’s possible to reach people in a very deep way.

Of course I reach less of them because they physically have to be there… But the bandwidth in the theater, in a live environment, is quantumly greater than the bandwidth available via a YouTube clip. The amount of data that can be transmitted is so much greater in a live space. Technologists today fetishize the bandwidth they’re able to provide, the video and audio they’re able to deliver over the Web. These are marvelous in their own way, but they do not substitute for actual communication. As a consequence, the kind of work that I’m interested in is only possible in person.

That’s why the monologues are built the way they are, and this monologue in particular. It’s talking about issues that most Americans are in active denialism about: our relationship with China, the labor circumstances under which our objects our made. It’s very important to actually try to compare notes in conversation about it. That’s why I work in this form. And, in fact, I think this belief in the primacy of the actual human connection is the only compelling reason to work in the theater. It’s entirely possible that there will be Web versions of parts of the story, but they can’t actually substitute for the experience of being in the room.

You’ve said that your role as a monologist is to guide people to a catharsis that is all their own. What then is the role of the discussions you frequently host after your shows? Is it possible to translate this catharsis into a more verbal understanding? Are there people who are more moved by the discussions than the monologues themselves?

Rarely is anyone moved by the discussions; these aren’t theatrically mediated spaces. When we call them discussions, really it means I come to the lobby and speak with people after the show. Part of the theatrical nature of the monologues is that people feel this desire to connect in a human way, so I make myself available. I hold myself accountable outside because my monologues cover a wide variety of subjects, and sometimes they’re somewhat provocative. But, really, the work is in the actual theater.

You’ve performed this monologue in a number of locations by now – California, India, now Washington – places that may have different relationships to Apple, international trade, consumer products, and so forth. Have you found that audiences in different places respond at all differently?

Fundamentally no. People ask this question in different contexts over and over again. Part of it is born of a desire, and it’s a very human one, that we all wish to be different. We all wish to believe that we’re all very, very different. But luckily, we are not. Human beings are actually very consistent. The same anthropological forces that make the theatrical experience work are human ones. As a consequence, they work as long as the people watching the performance are human beings, which the vast majority of my audiences are.

Effectively audiences everywhere are much more the same than they are different. There are always little differences. But even though we tend to fetishize the differences because they’re interesting to us, the similarities far outweigh them, whether I’m performing this monologue in Bangalore or in Washington.

You’ve emphasized that your monologues are unscripted. Do you find that they change significantly as you deliver them over and over again? Have you found that with this monologue in particular? And have you ever been utterly surprised at something that comes out of your mouth?

Yes, to all those questions. They change all the time; they’re in constant flux. And absolutely I’ve been very surprised at the things I find myself saying, moments of discovery that happen onstage — especially when the monologues are first born, when they’re done the very first time. It’s a constant process of surprise because they’re never rehearsed in any way.

Personal narrative is very integral to your monologues and the messages you try to get across. How does this change as you become a sort of celebrity figure? Is it a challenge when people go into your performances thinking they know something about you already?

It’s challenging at times – there’s an intimacy gap between myself and the audiences because people who’ve seen my monologues do feel like they know me, and when I’m speaking with them, I obviously don’t feel like I know them yet. But most human beings are really good at navigating that gap. In terms of the actual work, I try not to allow my feelings of privacy or shame to prevent me from telling the stories that need to be told. At the same time, the reality is that sometimes it is difficult to tell certain stories. Like with anyone, there’s a very healthy tension between the desire for a personal life and the desire to tell the truth. In my life, because of my obligations to the theater, I try to do everything I can to tell the stories that need to be told as clearly and openly as possible.

Instead of trudging through the ranks of various theater companies, it seems like you’ve very much created your own space for yourself as a performer. Do you have any advice for other prospective monologists or otherwise ambitious performers?

I do! My largest piece of advice is to cheat. It’s very important to cheat. People are prone to not cheating, but they need to cheat. The system of the theater as it’s designed is to prevent people from rising, because there are more people, more artists, more actors, more people who want to work in the theater than there is capacity. So the theater is actually dedicated to getting rid of as many people as possible. The dominant paradigm is actually to get rid of people.

So if you follow all the rules – if you go to the right grad schools, if you do everything exactly by the letter – you’ll probably fail, because the system is built to get rid of 99.999 percent of the people… Everyone I know who’s been successful in the theater is so because they cheated in some way or another. They discovered what advantages they had that no other people could emulate, and they worked to exploit those things. They used the talent they naturally have, but they also found edges and angles other people couldn’t exploit or emulate to game the system.

I really think that people who want to be successful in the arts have to carve a space out for themselves. The only way to do that is to follow unconventional wisdom. If people truly want to be successful, they have to learn how everyone is supposed to do things, and then figure out how they’ll subvert it.

Mike Daisey’s monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is scheduled to run thru April 17, 2011 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC.
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