By Philip Elmer-DeWitt
January 26, 2011

Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is a cry for labor reform in China

UPDATE (March 17, 2012): Unfortunately, it is now going to be easier than it should be to dismiss Mike Daisey’s message. It turns out that much of what he passed off as factual reporting was a concoction of things he had seen, things he had read about, things he had heard about and things he just made up. He lied to This American Life about the nature of his report, and he lied to me. See here.

– – –

It’s not going to be as easy as you might think to dismiss Mike Daisey’s message.

To be sure, we’ve heard before about the harsh working conditions at Foxconn’s massive factory complex in Shenzhen, China — where an astonishing percentage of the world’s electronic gizmos, not just Apple’s (AAPL) are assembled. Fourteen suicides in one year — even in a worker population of 430,000 — are pretty hard to ignore.

And Mike Daisey is hardly a household name. In fact, when word spread last year that he was working on a one-man show about Steve Jobs, so many tech journalists misspelled it that he felt obliged to post a corrective on his blog.

Finally, it’s been some time since Berkeley, Calif., where Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” opened Sunday at the Berkeley Repertory Theater — and where audience members are being handed a sheet with the phone numbers for Apple PR and Apple Investor Relations after the show — has had the power to shape opinion on Main St. America, never mind Wall Street.

But it would be a mistake to underestimate Daisey or the power of the meme — the mental seed — that he is planting.

For one thing, Daisey tells a good story. A large, heavy-set guy — think Spalding Gray at something like 300 lbs. — he’s honed his dramatic voice in a career as a monologist that spans more than a dozen years. “What distinguishes him from most solo performers,” a
New York Times
‘ reviewer wrote in 2007, “is how elegantly he blends personal stories, historical digressions and philosophical ruminations. He has the curiosity of a highly literate dilettante and a preoccupation with alternative histories, secrets large and small, and the fuzzy line where truth and fiction blur.”

For another, he’s got a good story to tell. Not just the saga of Steve Jobs’ rise and fall and rise again at Apple, which, after all, has been told before. But the story of his trip to Shenzhen, China — that “Special Economic Zone” with a population 10 million that he describes as looking like Blade Runner threw up on itself.

For unlike nearly every journalist who covered the Foxconn suicide story — and accepted Steve Jobs’ declaration last year that his beloved products are not being assembled in a sweat shop — Daisey actually went there, breathed the toxic air, and met some of the people who make our iPhones and iPads.

In the presence of scowling guards carrying machine guns, Daisey talked to Foxconn workers who told him they were 14, 13 and 12 years old. “Do you really think that Apple doesn’t know?” he asks rhetorically.

He met a woman who was blackballed because she dared demand her overtime pay. He showed his iPad to a worker who lost an arm hand assembling them, but who had never seen the finished product. (“It is like magic!” the man exclaimed when the screen lit up and the icons appeared.)

Daisey is not an Apple hater. On the contrary. He’s a self-confessed geek who has been in love with technology — and Apple’s technology in particular — since childhood. “I am worshipper in the Cult of Mac,” he says. (Although he confesses to have indulged in the Linux heresy.)

His point — the message he hopes will spread like a virus — is now that he’s been to Shenzhen, he can never look at his beloved MacBook Pro, iPhone and iPad without thinking about the people who built them. People as young as 12, he says, who work 14-hour days performing tasks so mind-numbingly repetitive that when the day is over they want to go back to their high-rise dormitories and jump off the roof.

Note to Apple PR — and Hewlett Packard’s (HPQ), Dell’s (DELL), and the rest: Daisey’s message could have legs. His breakout show — 21 Dog Years, an account of his unhappy employment at Amazon (AMZN) during the dotcom boom — played for six months off-Broadway in New York and won him an appearance on David Letterman, a BBC radio play and a book contract.

UPDATE (January 2011): I met Mike Daisey at Macworld and quizzed him at length about the points readers have raised in the comment stream. He says he made two visits to Shenzhen in late May and early June 2010, when the suicide story was at its peak, which might explain the guns he says he saw five or six guards carrying outside the main gate of Foxconn’s factory complex. He can’t swear that they were machine guns (“I don’t know guns,” he admits), but he indicated with a gesture that they were guns or rifles cradled in the arms. With regard to the ages of the Foxconn workers he interviewed, he repeats that they¬† said they were 12 to 14 years old. “I met one 11-year-old,” he says, “but I didn’t include it in the show because there was only one.” With regard to the arguments about suicide rates, he points out that the only source for China’s annual suicide rates is the Chinese government. “Why would you assume they are telling the truth?” he asks. “This is a fascist country run by thugs.” My impression of Mike Daisey is that he is an impassioned activist who is sincere about trying to bring about social change. He did not strike me as a liar. An earlier version of this post described a worker who lost an arm. Daisey says it was a hand, not a whole arm.

See also:

[Follow Philip Elmer-DeWitt on Twitter @philiped]

You May Like