This year, technology giant Apple Inc. may have finally met its David. By some estimates, it is now the most valuable company in the world. Yet it recently capitulated to public pressure when it tasked an independent investigation into one of Apple’s major subcontractors, Foxconn Technology Group, where popular electronic devices like iPads and iPhones are manufactured. For several years now, human rights groups and mainstream news organizations have have focused on the China-based Foxconn for its poor working conditions, highlighted by the recent plant explosion in Shenzhen that left dozens injured and a spate of employee suicides.
And these questionable working conditions are now getting the spotlight treatment in New York City.
Veteran performer Mike Daisey returns to New York City’s Public Theater with a second run of his well-received one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” an excerpt of which was adapted for NPR’s “This American Life” in January. The veteran reporter combines his own story, conversations with dozens of workers outside the Shenzhen plant, and the history of the tech company to highlight the human cost behind some of the world’s most popular computers and gadgets.
Most memorably, he gives intimate accounts of individual workers who moved to Shenzhen from smaller villages, taking jobs at the Foxconn factory in hopes of securing a financial foothold. Skillfully adopting the unique physicality for each character he portrays, Daisy relays the story of a man who lost an arm in a work-related accident on the iPad assembly line to powerful effect by simulating the man’s amputated limb stroking the smooth service of the tablet. The man, Daisey tells us, had never touched a fully assembled iPad prior to this encounter.
Despite the gravity of the subject, the show manages to avoid being preachy and pedantic thanks, in large part, to Daisey’s easy, self-effacing humor. While technically a one-man show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” feels more like a lively conversation between Daisey and his audience. In the near two-hour long monologue Daisey sits at a desk with a yellow notepad as his only prop against a backdrop of glowing LED lights, asking the audience questions like, “Who owns your Apple product?”
Daisey’s account of Apple’s rise to the top may be the least interesting part of the performance. His portrayal of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs also veers dangerously into caricature at several points, but his examination of the company’s countercultural roots is useful in appreciating how the company’s brilliant marketing strategy allows many Apple customers to remain willfully ignorant of the company’s questionable labor practices.
But even as people become aware of the poor working conditions, affecting audiences who live half a globe away from where their products are manufactured is hard. However, Daisey believes that attention to labor practices is imperative in the age of globalization. And at a time when hungry consumers anticipate the latest iteration of the iPad, Daisey’s performance puts an unforgettable human face on a class of mistreated laborers who make it possible for the electronics behemoth to churn out such a dazzling array of products at such a quick clip. The performer’s final message is a simple one: responsible informed consumers are key to upholding fair labor laws in a free market. “The power to change is very much tied to the behavior of the individual consumer.”
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” runs at The Public Theater until March 18.
In a press release issued on March 16, popular radio show “This American Life” retracted the portion of Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” that aired on the program in January. The show found “numerous fabrications” in Daisey’s telling of his visit to an Apple supplier factory in Shenzhen, China. Read the release here.