Caveat: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs isn’t really about Steve Jobs. Oh sure, he’s mentioned. There’s a comparatively brief slice of Mike Daisey’s monologue that tells the story of the rise of the computer mogul, including a juicy tidbit about how Jobs cheated partner Steve Wozniak during the early days.
But the majority of this nearly two hours without a break theatrical event is all about Daisey and his call for action. The show begins with a lighthearted confession from the author. Daisey is crazy for computers and gadgets, the newer, the better. He’s gotta gotta gotta have them. This beginning bit is pretty funny. Daisey is an abundant man, with a rubbery face; very Saturday Night Live, right?
He’s on stage all alone, which is really gutsy. He even addresses the audience with the very “Who is this guy, and why am I listening to him?” question a lot of us were beginning to ask.
As staged by director Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey is seated at a table, glass of water at hand. In front of him is what appears to be an outline of his presentation. The lighting brightens and dims throughout the show, just as Daisey’s voice is louder and softer by turns, all the better to keep us focused. Be aware that the music at the beginning of the show is deafening, very obviously also to get our attention. Toward the middle of the piece, there’s a point at which both the lights and Daisey’s voice get very low; I found myself drifting.
The thrust of the show concerns the horrendous working conditions at the Apple factory in China. Daisey, a world traveler, went to the Foxconn complex there; this is where Apple components are produced. He talked to several of the workers, and was able to ascertain just how bad the situation is for a multitude of employees. Child labor, workers crippled by the repetitive nature of their work, the use of toxic Hexane as a cleaning solvent, and ultimately, the blacklist created when workers complain to the labor bureau are all reported by Daisey. The audience is stunned into silence. Nets around the building to prevent mass suicide attempts? Who knew things could be that bad?
Through the efforts of Mike Daisey, and other reformers, the situation has been brought into the light. Recently, ABC’s Bill Weir journeyed to China to get firsthand information. He discovered that employees had been given a small raise; he showed an iPod to one of the worker who labored to produce it, but had never actually seen the finished product. It’s doubtful that this network expose would have been produced without Daisey and others like him.
But there are questions that must be raised. Weir announced that he is the first reporter to be allowed inside the factory. Did all of Daisey’s information come from workers he buttonholed?How was he allowed to talk to them inside the security obsessed complex?
While the rate of suicides at the factory is stunning, it is still lower than suicide rate in the rest of China. Factory workers are considered better off than their fellow countrymen.
How do we deal with the major problem facing China: demographics? What do a billion and a third people do to make a decent living? With the elderly population growing while the birth rate shrinks, who will care for older Chinese citizens in the future? Surely not the traditionally accepted caretakers, daughters and daughters-in-law. In a one-child only society which values male over female babies, women will be in very short supply. Which brings up the obvious question of where these little boys will finds wives when they reach maturity. The Chinese, factory workers or not, have many difficult days ahead, despite their burgeoning economy.
As we left the theater, we were given a sheet of paper geared to galvanize the audience into action. Great idea, after being shocked to our sox by Daisey’s show. But wait a minute. Do I leap into action before or after I give time and money to the cure for breast cancer; the quest for potable drinking water in Africa; the dozens of appeals we receive each month from Native Americans; the fight against leukemia and a myriad of other diseases; the Red Cross; the Salvation Army; the gay forces fighting for equal marriage rights; the League of Women Voters…I’m exhausted, and I’m broke.
We are infinitely lucky to live in the United States. Yet, it’s also true that my husband and I are at the age our parents were when they planned for retirement. For us, giving up working is just not an option. Our 401K has been consistently losing money for years. Our “nest egg” savings account is reaping .25% interest. While prices for everything are rising, there’s not even a whiff of a possibility in the air for a salary raise. And as the value of our house decreases, our taxes increase.
Older people in our country are hurting, and yes, I’m aware that conditions for Chinese workers are miserable. But having said that, if I can save money on what I buy, I will. My theater companion proposed we boycott buying Apple products. No problem; I can’t afford them.
Daisey deserves our praise for his work exposing the Apple manufacturing supply chain, and I applaud everything being done to help the downtrodden masses working to give us our electronic toys.
However, even though Apple is the biggest employer of cheap Chinese labor, it is far from the only one. My husband and I went shopping at the President’s Day sale at our local outlet center. We were delighted to get great prices on end of the season sweaters and snow boots. Every one of them was labeled “made in China.”
Photo credits, top, Stan Barouh, middle and bottom, Joan Marcus
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
The Public Theater
Through March 18, 2012
Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle.