NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a sold-out theater in downtown Manhattan, two miles from the square where anti-Wall Street demonstrators daily use iPhones, iPads and other devices to mobilize their forces, a performance artist named Mike Daisey is mounting a subversive attack on Apple Inc.
Sitting at a stainless steel table set with nothing but a glass of water, the actor slyly describes his geeky devotion to the perfectionist designs and operating systems of the House of Macintosh and its progenitor, Steve Jobs.
Before long, however, Daisey is recounting a trip he took to China to investigate the heavily guarded massive factories where screens and other parts for countless Apple, Dell, Nokia, Samsung and other manufacturers’ products are made.
He meets underage workers, some as young as 12, who describe 12-hour, 14-hour and even 34-hour shifts and their dormitory “cubes” stocked sardine-can style with 13 beds. He shows his iPhone to workers with crippled hands, and describes an “epidemic of suicides” that prompted Foxconn International Holdings, which he says manufactures more than 50 percent of the world’s electronic device parts, to install nets around its massive factories in China. (It’s “Foxconn’s version of corporate responsibility,” he says.)
The show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” oscillates between Daisey’s China experiences, including his misadventures posing as a prospective purchaser of both bootleg iPhones and Chinese companies, and his gradual disillusionment with his onetime hero, Jobs.
“I started to think,” Daisey says, “and that’s dangerous for any religion.”
He depicts Jobs, whom he never met, as an obsessive who divided his employees into either geniuses or bozos, who hooked the public on beautiful devices that he declared obsolete with each new product iteration (“the master of the forced upgrade,” an “enemy of nostalgia” who was “never afraid to knife the baby”) and who put business ahead of ethics.
“He knew these things,” Daisey said of Jobs and the China supply chain, “and he decided not to act.”
Daisey is framed onstage by a rectangular structure that flashes intermittently with LED-like illuminations to indicate chaos or order. When the stage lights are brightest, however, the frame is empty, opening on a bare view of brick wall and window - a metaphor, perhaps, for the void Daisey sees at the center of the consumer economy or for marketing creating an insatiable craving for new technology. “Steve Jobs,” Daisey marvels, was “so good at making us need things we didn’t know we needed.”
The show opened in New York last week, days after Jobs’s death following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Daisey says Jobs had heard about earlier versions of the show from audience members and occasionally responded with the email: “Mike doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the situation.”
Recalling his own years basking in the nighttime glow of a MacBook, inhaling the burned PVC incense of a new device being fired up and coddling iPod parts in their perfect packaging, Daisey asks: “Do we just see what we want to see?”
Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman, said the company is committed to “driving the highest standards of social responsibility throughout our supply chains,” has on-site auditors at Foxconn and other suppliers, and requires suppliers to commit to a published code of conduct as a condition of doing business.
Apple posts five years’ worth of audits verifying compliance on its website and has gone beyond monitoring labor conditions to areas such as breaking up indentured servitude rings, Dowling said.
Daisey, meanwhile, has no illusions that people will give up on electronic devices but as the audience files out of the show, whispering about whether to restart their cellphones, ushers distribute a single page suggesting “concrete steps” for what to do next.
It suggests e-mailing Apple CEO Tim Cook (Daisey gives his address) with a “firm, polite, resolute” plea to hire independent outside auditors to verify factory conditions.
It urges consumers to “think different” about the need to upgrade with the introduction of each new “amazing” Apple device. “If we weighed the human cost of each piece of technology we would become more stringent in our purchasing,” Daisey writes
Evoking one of the show’s wittiest scenes, in which the actor despairs about mind-numbing communications tools such as Microsoft’s PowerPoint that lets people in the same room avoid talking to each other, the monologist ends his handout with a cry to spread the word about Chinese labor conditions.
“Talking about it, thinking about it when making purchasing decisions and understanding it is not just symbolic. In a world of silence, speaking itself is action,” Daisey writes
Reporting by Jed Horowitz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn