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Agony & Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Mike Daisey at the Public Theatre

Mike Daisey at the Public Theatre

Published in the Guardian on October 20, 2011.

The day Steve Jobs died, Mike Daisey stayed up all night, in a darkened room, lit only by the glow of his Macbook Pro, reading a cache of personal emails from Apple’s founder. He was searching for fresh insights into the genius behind the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad, but no matter how long he stared at the screen, meaning remained elusive. The man was gone and his myth echoed everywhere.

Daisey has been an Apple fan since childhood, but in the course of writing his latest monologue, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the relationship deepened to the point of obsession. The show is a love song to Apple’s gorgeous, transformative devices, but also a vehement attack on the way they are produced, at a vast, dehumanising factory complex in Southern China, where workers assemble laptops and smart phones for next to nothing.

Jobs is portrayed as a “visionary asshole” who trampled on friends in his quest for perfection. He changed the way we understand and engage with the world three times, Daisey argues, but he was also a manipulative egotist, an unbearably demanding, capricious boss and a ruthless businessman who would do anything to achieve market dominance. Seeing his flaws ripped open and hearing about his seeming indifference to the miserable conditions at Apple’s outsourced factories is a bracing antidote to the ceaseless hagiography of recent weeks. But is it too soon? The show opened at the Public Theatre in New York a day after Jobs was laid to rest.

The love affair with technology that began when Daisey’s grandfather bought him an Apple IIc, in 1984, eventually took him to the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, in Southern China, where roughly 50% of the world’s consumer electronics are made. Daisey stood outside the gates of the Foxconn Technology plant, which employs 430,000 people, and asked workers to tell him stories about the conditions inside.

He met a man whose hand had been crippled by a decade on the assembly line, workers threatened with life in prison for joining a union and thirteen-year-old girls doing thirteen-hour shifts. The factory was briefly in the news last year, when it installed nets under the top floor windows, following a rash of suicides, but otherwise it may as well operate in a black hole. Chances are your phone was made there, but most people know nothing about the place. It came as a revelation to me that most electronic devices are assembled by hand, rather than by robots.

Daisey weaves his trip to Shenzhen into a history of Apple, from the company’s guerrilla origins, flying a pirate flag over Silicon Valley, via its near death experience in the 1990s, to modern day ubiquity, in a performance that is often hilarious and always intense. Jobs is both hero and villain of the piece, as it charts his rise, fall and rise again. “If the goal was to slander the man, there’s ample ammunition,” Daisey says. “The show would be six hours long.”

It ends with Daisey telling the audience “tonight is a virus.” Fliers handed out at the exit suggest that people email Apple’s new CEO, Tim Cook, to call for independent supervision in Shenzhen. Daisey’s messages from Jobs were replies to such requests. Reading through them, he concluded that Apple’s founder “turned his back on these things a long time ago”.

In this, Jobs had the rest of the industry for company (Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia and Sony Ericsson are all clients of Foxconn) not to mention anyone who has ever owned a laptop or mp3 player, but it still came as a shock to discover that he did not “think different” when it came to exploitation in China. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a welcome caveat to the sanctification of a technological pioneer.