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Mike Daisey's "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is funny, forceful agitprop (Update)

Update Mar 17 2012: This American Life, after additional reporting, retracted the episode featuring excerpts from Daisey's show. Some of the assertions Daisey made in his monologue, including a key passage about encountering workers injured by n-hexane exposure, are now acknowledged by Daisey to be the product of "dramatic license" rather than facts. Our review of the performance itself remains below, but readers are cautioned that Daisey's credibility as an observer of conditions in China is now in tatters. The final NYC performances of the show at the Public Theater, scheduled for this weekend, will proceed as planned, although an April performance in Chicago that was to be presented by TAL and WBEZ (the station that produces the show) has been cancelled.

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If you're looking for coverage of working conditions at Foxconn and other Apple manufacturing partners, there's plenty to go around. The drumbeat of sharply critical stories continued today with CNN's interview of a Foxconn worker; this follows a scathing New York Times story from late January that explores the gulf between electronics companies' best intentions regarding working conditions at contract facilities, and the incessant pressure to innovate and squeeze costs out of the process.

Fairness, though, requires a few reminders. There's social and political argument over the ultimate value of sweatshop labor conditions in developing countries, with the pro-sweatshop side citing enormous economic benefits for countries that can capitalize on an inexpensive and inexhaustible labor force. Even if you buy the hypothesis that cheap labor isn't necessarily good for China, it's true that Apple isn't the only Foxconn client by a long shot, and the electronics manufacturing sector may actually be one of the brighter lights for worker's rights in China. Nevertheless, the company's high-profile and highly profitable products combined with its longstanding penchant for product secrecy have made it a lightning rod for "Applerousing" activism and anger.

Apple CEO Tim Cook, the man most responsible for assembling Apple's supply chain into a strategic advantage for the company, reportedly sent a very strongly worded email to all Apple hands, noting that "any suggestion that we don't care [about the welfare of workers in our supply chain] is patently false and offensive to us.... accusations like these are contrary to our values. It's not who we are." In addition to the company's annual Supplier Responsibility Reports and auditing programs, Apple has recently taken another couple of steps that put it out in front of other consumer electronics firms; it released its supplier list for the first time, and it's the first sector company to join the Fair Labor Association. These changes should, in theory, make it easier for third parties to look into workplace issues within the Apple supplier universe.

You can get a very different take on the relative impact of Apple's policies, and the human cost of making insanely great products for entirely sane prices, by spending an evening at the Public Theater in New York City with monologuist Mike Daisey watching The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Be warned, however, that it is not so easy to leave the show with the same nonchalance about Apple's products and their origins as you might have when you arrive.

The first thing that audience members will notice as they take their seats before the start of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is the cubical and spare set. With rectangular frames in a back LED wall and a glass/chrome desk atop a glass platform, there's a definite echo of a familiar retail aesthetic; it's as if the designer was instructed "Make it look a little like an Apple Store, but don't spend much."

The mood is also evoked, carefully, with sound. The music playing before the show includes both the OS X Leopard post-installation track "Exodus Honey" and Jonathan Coulton's geek anthem "Skullcrusher Mountain." Coulton's song even gets a nod during the monologue itself, when Daisey refers to Apple as a company full of "mad geniuses" who, after Steve's involuntary departure in the 1980s, could finally realize their plans to combine a monkey with a pony.

The next thought, as the show begins: Mike Daisey is a large, loud, sweaty dude who sits in a chair and talks at you for two hours. Although this may sound like a rough session of detention with an angry phys-ed teacher, or an afternoon with your conspiracy theory-obsessed uncle, the performance Daisey delivers is heartfelt, intelligent and ultimately completely watchable. His show, which was excerpted on the January 6 episode of the public radio program This American Life [and subsequently retracted –Ed.], recounts both his decades-long fascination with Apple, including the unforgettable arc of the late co-founder Jobs, and also Daisey's half-cocked but surprisingly effective gonzo investigation of labor conditions at Foxconn and other electronics manufacturing contractors in the Chinese city of Shenzhen.

Referring to his handwritten notes as he goes -- the performance is extemporaneous, so there is no canonical scripted text and the narrative has evolved over the 18 months that the show has been touring -- Daisey wants to make one thing abundantly clear. If you cut him, he would bleed six colors. To establish his bona fides as a true member of the Apple faithful for a civilian audience, he claims that sometimes after a show he relaxes by "field-stripping my MacBook Pro into its 43 component parts," cleaning each one before reassembling the laptop. "It soothes me," he purrs, stroking his chest with his fingers.

While I don't know that many Mac geeks who relax by taking apart their MBPs, it's evident from Daisey's frequent, coherent technical asides that he isn't putting on airs (or Airs). His heartfelt memories of his family's first computer (an Apple IIc, considered so pricey that it merited its own "computer room") will resonate for plenty of TUAW readers of a certain age. I may have been the only audience member who involuntarily nodded and muttered "yes, of course" when Daisey shared his favorite Mac of all time, but that was only because his choice, the compact yet powerful (for its day) SE/30, was so obviously right.

It's Daisey's love for all things Apple that makes his perception of the company's fall from grace all the more stinging. Starting with the inadvertent leak of several testing photos taken on the iPhone assembly line, Daisey's curiosity about the process and the people behind Apple's products drove him to research the circumstances of where all our stuff comes from.

In 2010, Daisey traveled to southern China and literally drove up to the gates of the massive Foxconn plant in an effort to talk to production line workers; he was in country shortly after the cluster of Foxconn employee suicides and during the incident when a Foxconn employee died of exhaustion after a multi-day workshift. He posed as an American industrialist to gain access to other companies' facilities (including dormitories with beds crammed to the ceiling), and also met with labor rights activists and workers who, despite enormous legal and personal risks, have tried to form labor unions in Chinese factories.

Daisey's recounting of his conversations with these workers is sometimes poignant and often shocking. He met laborers exposed to the neurotoxic solvent n-hexane (now banned from Apple's supply chain, but originally used as an iPhone screen cleaner) who now shake so badly they cannot hold a teacup. He spoke with underage workers outside the plant gates, although follow-up investigations by This American Life indicated that the hiring of minors is far less prevalent than it once was and that Foxconn is relatively well-positioned on that score (some independent organizations dispute this, noting that audits are easy to deceive). Daisey's own translator wonders if all these people can possibly have been through what they say, expressing shock that so many tell the same stories of mistreatment, forced/unpaid overtime and bad working conditions.

As Daisey has performed this piece around the country over the past two years, he might have been considered a lonely voice in the wilderness. (TUAW interviewed Daisey at Macworld Expo 2011, while he was performing the show in Berkeley, CA.) Circumstances have changed quite a bit since he began, however. The radio broadcast was a turning point in the show's reception, according to a flyer handed out by ushers after the performance; it was the most downloaded episode in TAL's history and, Daisey's flyer claims, was heard by many Apple employees and their families. This created what Daisey's sources call "a morale situation" within the company, and he asserts that this internal circumstance was a factor in Apple's subsequent decision to join the FLA and open its supply chain to additional scrutiny.

It may not be as simple as Daisey wishes for Apple to effectively address the condition of a massive Chinese labor force that, in the final analysis, does not actually work for the Cupertino company. His suggestion of a 'dividend for change,' where Apple would directly invest five billion dollars of its cash reserves into the supply chain, would certainly be worthy of a company founded by a Zen-loving college dropout who urged customers to think different -- but it's surpassingly unlikely. Still, public awareness and action on the question of humane labor overseas (whether contracted by Apple, HP, Asus, Sony or any other company) will make a difference in the months and years to come. As Daisey says in his online response to Apple's recent moves toward further supply chain glasnost:

If Apple would spend less energy finessing its public image, and instead apply its efforts to real transparency and accountability, it could be a true leader for the electronics industry. Apple today is still saying what it said yesterday: trust us, we know best, there's nothing to worry about. They have not earned the trust they are asking for."

Mike Daisey's monologue The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs continues through March 4, 2012 at New York City's Public Theater. The show runs approximately two hours and is performed without an intermission. Tickets and information: http://www.publictheater.org



It's Daisey's love for all things Apple that makes his perception of the company's fall from grace all the more stinging.