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The Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Mike Daisey—pictured here in front of a famous monument to Deng Xiaopheng, in Shenzhen, China—returns to Berkeley Rep with an audacious new monologue: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.
Ursa Waz
Mike Daisey—pictured here in front of a famous monument to Deng Xiaopheng, in Shenzhen, China—returns to Berkeley Rep with an audacious new monologue: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

Modern life can be difficult to live without help from our smart-phones and other gadgets. Apple is at the forefront of this technology and its users are often incredibly loyal. But a new show by monologist Mike Daisey at the Seattle Repertory Theater raises the point that all of this beautiful design and convenience comes at a cost to factory workers in China.

The production is called “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”

Before heading into the theater to see Daisey’s performance, ticket holders can brows an Apple Museum in the lobby. The evolution of Apple products over the decades is on full display. You can see the Apple II from 1977 and everything the company has put out since. Rob Burgess of Seattle is one of the many Apple devotees attracted to the display.

“I think my Apple products are extremely sexy. It’s just a delicious design."

Burgess is a big Mike Daisey fan and expects to laugh quite a bit as he heads into the theater to take his seat. Daisey weaves the stories of how Apple came to be the company it is today and his own quest to find out who actually makes these shiny things Americans love so much.

Daisey pokes fun at himself at and of course at Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs. Daisey says Jobs is the master of making us want what we never thought we needed. Daisey explains what sets Jobs apart from other tech geniuses is that he never hesitates to kill off a beloved product

The show is a bit of a rollercoaster ride that makes you laugh one minute and squirm uncomfortably in your seat the next as Daisey describes his trip to Shenzhen, China where he says just about every piece of technology we own is put together by hundreds of thousands of human hands. 

Daisey says he was inspired to go to China after seeing test pictures taken on an Iphone inside a factory. Someone forgot to erase them. One was of a worker in a white jump suit.

“I had only then realized that I had never thought, ever, abut how they were made even though I knew so much about these devices.”

Daisey bought a plane ticket, hired an interpreter and posed as an American businessman looking to tour factories. He visited lots of them, but the one he really wanted to get into was Foxconn. According to Daisey, Foxconn is the biggest company you’ve never heard of. It employs more than 400-thousand people and has nets around the rim of its buildings to catch the workers who try to commit suicide. It’s also where Apple’s products are made.

Daisey says he never got past the armed guards, but he did talk to hundreds of Foxconn workers outside its gates. Many of who were 12 and 13 years old.

“Workers work, 15 and 16 hour shifts seven days a week for months on end that they work until their spines fuse from their base upwards, that the joints in their hands give way by the time they are 20 and 21 and by the time they are ruined, their hands are ruined, they are thrown away because they are no longer of use. While I was in country a worker at Foxconn died after working a 32 hour shift. That’s not unusual, it actually happens all the time."

Daisey is pushing for change.

“It could happen today. People forget the only reason there was even  sweatshop revolutions, the only reason that there was any reform in that field was that people put pressure on one company, Nike.”

Back in the late 1990’s the Nike brand became synonymous with slave wages after reports of poor working conditions in its factories overseas.  Nike bowed to public pressure. Wages were raised and more oversight was put in place. Today there are organizations that monitor the clothing industry and work with companies like Nike on a regular basis. Daisey hopes the tech world will follow suit.  Until that happens Daisey isn’t  going to throw away his Apple gadgetry anytime soon, but he will think twice before rushing out to buy the latest models.

Apple knows about Daisey’s show. Its spokespeople have no comment, but do direct people to a part of Apple’s website that explains how, for years, the company has been working to stay on top of the issues brought up in the performance.

After the show, Rob Burgess, the Apple fan I met up with earlier, looks a bit dazed.

“I learned a lot and it’s nice to have someone take you by the shoulders and give you a shake and say there are actually human beings building these things.. So I think the painful human aspect of it is significantly clearer to me.”

Burgess holds a piece of paper in his hand. It’s a flier that’s given out after the show explaining what people can do to make change happen. At the top of the flier is Steve Job’s email. The directions are not to abuse it and to be polite, but firm. You’re also warned that Jobs has little tolerance for bozos. If you follow this advice, you just might get a response.


It's not the first time Daisey has taken on a tech giant that's changing our culture. Here's a link to KPLU's conversation with him about his show, "21 Dog Years - Doing Time at" from 2003.  

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.