The public adoration of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs started long before his death on October 5.
But one self-proclaimed worshipper in the house of Mac became disillusioned after investigating how Apple products are made in China.
That's the seed of a one-man performance called "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," now running through December 4, at New York's Public Theater.
Mike Daisey’s two-hour monologue traces his efforts to convince Jobs to address working conditions at Apple’s suppliers in southern Shenzhen, China.
Surely Jobs would improve those conditions, Daisey thought, if he only knew how bad they were.
Prior to Jobs' death, Daisey had been performing the show around the country for more than a year. Each time, he urged his audiences to email Jobs, boycott or stop upgrading Apple products, support human rights groups in China, and ask friends to join them.
After Jobs' death Daisey and the Public's Artistic Director Oskar Eustis issued a statement expressing their condolences to Jobs' family, while noting that his death created a "perfect moment" to decide "what parts of his legacy we should embrace and what parts we need to reject."
Daisey had already made the pilgrimage from Apple fanatic to Apple critic. For years he saw Steve Jobs as infallible.
But in May 2010, Daisey began the pilgrimage from Apple fanatic to Apple critic. He took a trip to Foxconn Technology Group factories in Shenzhen, China.
It’s a massive industrial zone, where 430-thousand workers (the population of Cleveland) make Apple products under what human rights groups call appalling labor conditions. At least 10 people had recently committed suicide, most jumping to their deaths.
A heavy-set man with a passing resemblance to the late comedian Chris Farley, Daisey is not an actor; he is not a journalist. He calls himself a monologist, mixing humor and horror to make audiences understand the human cost of what they buy.
"We think we know where our SH*T comes from. We think our SH*T comes from CHINA…right?” he says. He makes a circular hand motion to conger up the 'mystical' Far East: “China! In a generalized way? There are dragons there!”
In Shenzhen, Daisey impersonated an American businessman. He met with Foxconn management, and sat through their lengthy sales pitches.
(Please see Editor's Note below concerning the following paragraph.)
Outside the factories, he talked to girls as young as twelve who described working 12-hour shifts assembling Apple parts. He met workers who said they had been sickened by nerve-damaging chemicals used to hand-clean Apple’s glass-faced iPhones and iPads. One worker told Daisey his hands had frozen into claws from crippling repetitive motions. And he heard about a young man who collapsed and died after working 34 straight hours.
“The cost of labor is effectively zero,” says Daisey in the monologue, so Foxconn sees no profit in rotating workers from one grinding task to another, or mechanizing the process. Daisey marvels when he realizes that Apple products, praised for their austere precision, are literally made by hand.
In a June 2010 videotaped interview with AllThingsDigital’s Kara Swisher, Jobs denied accusations of worker abuse or dangerous conditions at Foxconn but did say the suicides were “troubling.”
“Foxconn is not a sweat shop,” he said. “When you go to this place and—it’s a factory—but my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools, and for a factory it’s a pretty nice factory.” He added, "Apple does one of the best jobs of any company in our industry and maybe of any industry of understanding the working conditions of our supply chain."
Some of the “Agony” in the title of Daisey's monologue must be his own. Jobs never saw the play.
You can feel the anguish in Daisey's voice, now that Jobs is dead. “I lived in hope, but now that he’s gone it always clarifies what is true: he knew what was going on and he chose not to change it.”
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak did attend the show and told Daisey he wept at its implications. Over dinner, Daisey and Wozniak talked about what should be done.
“As people become more conscious, the odds of groups being created, labor groups … to do independent monitoring ... becomes more of a reality," Daisey believes.
"That’s one of the things I discussed with Wozniak," he says. “I guess I got one out of two Steves, so that’s not bad.”
That’s not the case with Apple’s new chief executive. Last year, then-COO Tim Cook visited Shenzhen and discussed the allegations with Foxconn management. In a subsequent “Supplier Responsibility Report,” Apple said it was "deeply saddened" to learn of suicides at Shenzhen.
Apple praised Foxconn's efforts to address the problem, including the installation of nets around its buildings to prevent would-be suicides.
Apple still finds child labor, excessive job fees, and other work violations at its overseas suppliers, the report says, although conditions are improving.
Near the end of his performance, Daisey says the next move is up to us. “There is nothing I have told you tonight that you do not already know.”
Nor does he absolve himself.
“In time I will have to buy something because things wear out and the corporations themselves are very interested in intentional obsolescence. So I will have to upgrade eventually. I’ll be looking for ethical ways to do that.”
An Apple spokesperson made no direct comment on the play but said: "We required our suppliers to provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes wherever Apple products are made."
Editor’s Note: On March 16, 2012, This American Life, a radio program produced by WBEZ in Chicago, retracted a January 6, 2012 story that consisted of a 39-minute excerpt from Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” The program’s producers said they had determined the excerpt included “numerous fabrications” about things Daisey said he had seen and people he said he had met.
Some of the events the radio show believes were fabricated were also cited in this CNBC.com story, including Daisey’s claim that he met under aged workers and other workers who had been poisoned by a chemical used to hand-clean iPhone and iPad screens.
In response, Daisey posted a statement on his blog that said he used a “combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license” to create a “theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge.”
He said he stands by his work and is proud it has brought attention to what he called the “often appalling conditions” for Chinese workers assembling many of the “high-tech products we love so much.”
He also acknowledged he is not a journalist and said he regretted allowing the excerpt to air in the journalistic context of This American Life.