The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

In the Southern Chinese Province of Guangdong there is a City called Shenzhen. A generation ago it had seven hundred inhabitants, most of whom were fishermen. Now it has fourteen million. They make our electronic stuff…our iPhones, our Macs, our iPads. There are millions of workers, making them by hand. Why, one company – Foxconn – employs 430,000 people. That’s more than live in Atlanta! Foxconn has them thread, wire, and wind our fancy machines, repetitively, for ten hours a day or more, and then marches them off to their tiny dormitories, where they sleep as many as fifteen to a room. And sometimes, they climb up to the top of the building, and jump off.

That’s the Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

In Mike Daisey’s most complete, most layered, most complex, most uproariously disturbing monologue to date, he goes to the gates of Foxcomm with us, and talks to workers in sight of the withering gaze of armed guards. He sees them in tea houses afterward, where they risk imprisonment to talk with him. He poses as an American businessman, and sits through power-point presentations so that he can later walk the floors of their factories, and see how their employees live and work. He looks into the belly of the beast.

Mike Daisey (Photo: Stan Barouh)

And that beast – it’s not China, although you can’t escape the irony that these workers are being treated like machines in the People’s Republic of China, a self-proclaimed worker’s paradise where, under good Marxist theory, the workers ostensibly control the means of production. (Daisey calls this city in Communist China the place where “capitalist and corporatist” culture reaches its apotheosis).

And it’s not Steve Jobs, or Apple™, although Daisey interlaces his South China Horror Story with an outrageously funny account of the history of Apple Computing, from the Apple 1 (it had no keyboard, thus satisfying the geeks who could make their own) through the Jobless Scully years and the crucial moment when the Apple board, their company in tatters, invites him back. (Daisey imagines this scene, playing the part of the humbled Board member as Chris Farley might have played him, had Farley been funnier.)  Daisey correctly identifies corporations as essentially another user tool, which bends to the will of its market, good or evil.

No, the beast is us – with our slathering jaws snapping at every electronic doodad tossed our way for an easy price, without regard for the human cost to its manufacture. Daisey has the grace and good sense to recognize himself as part of the problem. One of the funniest of the monologue’s many funny passages shows us Daisey’s reaction to a new release of an upgraded server – an exotic combination of an addict looking for a fix and a six-year-old who wants a new toy.

But though The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a funny piece, the story behind it is deadly serious. In this monologue, Daisey is less an actor or memoirist and more a crusading journalist, taking risks that few journalists are willing to take in order to bring us the thoughts and experiences of the people who make our electronica. At the end of his Shenzhen sojourn, Daisey sits alone in his hotel room, wondering how he can get the information in his computer through the grasp of the Chinese censors. (The Chinese government selectively suppresses electronic transmissions in and out of the country, thus recalling Pope Gregory XVI, who sought to discourage revolution in the now-defunct Papal States by sharply limiting train travel.)

Daisey was worried about the authorities seizing his stories, which you would be better off hearing from him rather than me. Suffice it to say that they parallel the worst stories from the Western industrial revolution; that the worker’s paradise has become a neo-Dickensian London, with long hours, low wages, horrifying working conditions, child labor, and industrial accidents. He has worse stories, Daisey warns darkly, but he does not share them because they are too difficult to hear.

In our own history, labor rose up from its oppression and our democratic institutions reacted to impose, by law, reasonable safeguards on the uneven relationship between capital and labor. This may also happen in China, but it is best not to be sanguine. There are no democratic institutions in the worker’s paradise, and there is a strong cultural strain which celebrates self-sacrifice and subservience to authority.

But the Chinese culture is not monolithic, and there are plenty of Chinese workers who find their treatment so intolerable that they have formed underground unions – an act which, if discovered by the Chinese government, will result in life imprisonment. The fact that real change will first require that the Chinese worker demand it does not obviate our own obligation to buy electronics consciously, instead of sucking up product blindly. Daisey recommends following  this site, and this one, to bring ourselves up to date on labor conditions in the worker’s paradise, and e-mailing Steve Jobs (Daisey give you his email address at the end of the show) with thoughtful, constructive comments. Of course, Apple is not the only American company to benefit from abused Chinese labor; Daisey selected them, he says, because they are an industry leader.

Daisey means to make his art both journalism and advocacy. In the program, he states that “I think that journalism should be part of most art that we make. Because we should know what is happening in the world, we should know it in our bones and it should inform our work…I think that actually being cheek by jowl with life itself, with things that are actually happening, affords us an opportunity to have specific dialogue that doesn’t exist otherwise…I feel like it’s the act of conscious citizens to be activists. I think that if you have no activism in your life…then you are not conscious.”

As art, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is pretty much optimum. As advocacy, it might stand some tweaks. Daisey begins with a riff about the suicides at Foxcomm, but leaves the subject early and does not return. Foxcomm suicides – there were ten, with two unsuccessful attempts, between January and May of 2010 – sound more instructive than they actually are. This is actually about the norm for a population of 430,000 in China. (China’s suicide rate is 27.8 per 100,000 people, much higher than the U.S.’s 11.5).

On the other hand, I wish that Daisey had told the gruesome stories he said that he kept from us for fear of offending our sensibilities. From an artistic standpoint it might have been the right choice – I heard an audience member affirm that she could not have heard any more brutal stories – but the most effective advocates usually let us have it, right in the kisser. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the most effective American artist-advocate of the 19th Century, did not stint in telling the depredations of Simon Legree, and her counterpart in England, Charles Dickens, was so marvelously effective largely because he brought the underbelly to light. I cannot imagine that Sinclair worried about our sensibilities in describing life in the meat-packing plants, or Solzhenitsyn held back when telling us about the Gulag. Whatever you have, Mr. Daisey, let us know!

In his monologue, Daisey tells us two things that ratchet up the complexity considerably. He does not dwell on them, but it is a good idea for us to, before we decide what to do. The first is that American companies could require decent labor conditions for the people who make their devices without a noticeable cost increase, since labor costs now average only $.80 per unit. The wage scale is so low that improvements – we’re not talking Western-style health care, remember; just changes so that the system no longer shocks the conscience – will not have a significant impact on the end price, or on profits.

The second thing is – you know those terrible factory jobs, with their backbreaking hours, their brutal and unsafe conditions, their miserable wages?

They are among the most desirable jobs in China.

Millions of Chinese people, Daisey says, long to leave their even worse jobs for an opportunity to work at Foxconn and the equivalent contemporary sweatshops, in the hope that their children will able to have a decent, professional job.

Which gives me a premonition of what might happen on the day I e-mail Steve Jobs. Mr. Jobs, I’ll write, you are the greatest innovator of your generation. Can you not find a solution to this dreadful problem?

In the premonition, Jobs – who often responds personally to e-mails – writes back. I have found a solution, he’ll write. I’ve now arranged for all the electronic devices Apple manufactures to be put together by machines. No one will be forced to work under inhumane or indecent conditions in order to build an Apple project.

But what about those millions of people hoping for jobs at Foxcomm or the other huge Shenzhen employers? I ask. What will you tell them?

I’ll give them your e-mail, he’ll write back.

Two things are certain. The future is coming at us at the speed of life.

And we’re not ready for it.

The Agony and the Ectasy 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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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Produced at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor

Highly Recommended
Two hours, without intermission

Related:
Peter Certo interviews Mike Daisey

Other reviews:

 

Comments

  1. “Foxconn suicides – there were ten, with two unsuccessful attempts, between January and May of 2010 – sound more instructive than they actually are.”
    It should be noted that every time the media tries to tell this story, they only mention the cluster of suicides…when in reality, workers killing themselves in the specific manner described in the show has been going on for a few years. Workers were not killing themselves in this manner at other plants in southern China.
    “This is actually about the norm for a population of 430,000 in China. (China’s suicide rate is 27.8 per 100,000 people, much higher than the U.S.’s 11.5).”
    This use of statistics to somehow dismiss the confluence of a high number of people killing themselves very publicly at their workplace has been one of the ways the tech press has managed to bury the story of the work conditions—if you can explain the numbers, you don’t need to examine or think about the circumstances.
    An excellent takedown of this kind of logic can be found here:
    http://www.fakesteve.net/2010/05/our-new-spin-on-the-foxconn-suicide-epidemic.html
    One of the reasons I emphasize the working conditions, and do not dwell on the suicides, is that the technology press has run such a concerted effort to reduce it into a statistics sound bite, forged from a faulty interpretation of data, that I don’t want people to do what they have been doing—dismissing all of the complex labor situation in China because they believe the suicides are acceptable and fine, and write the whole thing off.
    Finally—Stowe, Dickens, Sinclair, and Solzhenitsyn all worked in dead text, not on stage. Different forms call for different techniques. I am hoping to find new ways to let those additional stories come to light.

     

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