by Jill Dalton
“If you control the metaphor through which people see the world, then you control the world itself.” Mike Daisey
I recently attended a matinee of Mike Daisey’s the “Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at the Public Theatre in New York City. It’s a powerful, thought provoking tale and Daisey’s a masterful storyteller. Until Daisey stepped onto the stage before the performance began and told us briefly about his experience on the NPR radio show, “This American Life,” I didn’t realize the controversy surrounding the piece. He basically said he stands behind his work and anything false he’d removed from the script.
First, let me come clean here; I’ve only owned Apple computers. I’m on my third. Granted I keep my computers long after they’ve been deemed obsolete by the industry. My MacBook’s five years old and even though I upgraded I still need more memory. I don’t own an iPhone although I’m considering buying one as soon as my phone contract will allow me. I don’t own an iPad but have two iPods both were given to me.
Now we’ve all heard and read about the horrible abuses of the workers in China by Apple. The New York Times has done several exposes, as well as CNN and other sources and then there’s Mike Daisey. For those of you who don’t know Mike Daisey is a monologist. I first encountered him at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City in about 2002 when I went to see “21 Dog Years” about his stint with Amazon.com. His monologue was poignant, biting, funny, well written and deliciously subversive and despite the fact he merely sits at a desk and talks directly to us he completely captivates his audience with his large expressive face and a voice as agile as a trapeze artist.
I’ve written and performed three solo plays myself and one of them, Lizzie Borden Live, was commissioned by the East Lynne Theatre Company in Cape May, NJ where we had a very successful six week run. Subsequently the show went on to Providence, RI, Fall River, MA, New York City and Sedona, Arizona. I’m only telling you this to let you know I’ve got some street cred when assessing this genre. Doing a solo show is no easy feat. It takes hours and hours of work. From the concept to research to building the piece brick by brick can take years to perfect.
Daisey’s, self-professed technology geek tale opens at the Mira Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Over the course of the almost two hours he takes us on a journey through being a “worshiper in the cult of Mac. I have been to the House of Jobs, I have walked through the stations of his cross, I have knelt before his throne.” to downloading four pictures off the Internet taken inside the factory where iPhones are made.
“First was of a stack of pallets, wooden pallets, stacked up; and the second was the edge of a conveyor belt; the third was totally out of focus—it could just be an enormous space—and the fourth was a woman. She doesn’t know her picture’s being taken. She’s looking off in another direction, she’ wearing a clean suit, she has no expression on her face.”
And he wonders, “Who are these people?” And for the first time he thinks about where and how these items are made.
Daisey then travels to Shenzhen, China, “the third largest city in the world you’ve never heard of,” where he visits a few factories posing as a businessman and meets with factory officials. He also visits Foxconn, the factory that produces 50% of all the electronics made in the world and standing outside the gates talks with the workers there.
What he learns is quite disturbing indeed but let’s be honest it’s not just Apple that abuses their workers it’s every electronic company working over there. Apple just happens to be the gold standard by which all other companies are measured. It’s important to note at the time Daisey was visiting Foxconn workers had been committing suicide month after month by going to the top of the buildings and jumping off. Foxconn’s response was to put nets outside the buildings to break their falls before they could break their necks.
The handout given to each audience member as we exit the theatre states,
“Apple makes 60% profit on every device. Apple’s sitting on a cash reserve of $100 billion dollars in the bank. It’s a staggering figure. That’s more cash than the federal government has on hand. And yet Apple has not been able to manage its supply chain in a humane way. It hasn’t done this because until now it has not been a priority for them and its workers have paid that price.”
Now for the controversy. Ira Glass, the host of “This American Life,” has called some of the material in Daisey’s piece into question. He claims they didn’t’ fact check Daisey’s work closely enough. You may listen to the episode here.
The New York Times reported.
“This American Life made waves this morning when it announced it was retracting its episode about Foxconn’s factories because performance artist Mike Daisey misrepresented several facts to the program. The announcement seems to have started a chain reaction, with the New York Times removing a paragraph from an opinion piece Daisey wrote after the passing of Steve Jobs last year. Entitled “Against Nostalgia,” the piece originally contained references to Daisey meeting a man whose hand had been mangled while manufacturing iPads — an encounter that is now understood to have been completely fabricated. The New York Times has appended the article with an explanation for the change.”
In the monologue Daisey tells about meeting a 13 year-old girl working in the factory and then says, “Cathy, his Chinese Interpreter, doesn’t remember this.” He also tells the story of handing his iPad to a worker with a mangled hand from an accident incurred at the factory where he made iPads who says he’s never seen one on and again Daisey gives the caveat, “Cathy doesn’t remember this story.” Turns out Rob Schmitz, a Shanghai based reporter for Marketplace, tracks Cathy down, meets her and asks about, among other things, these two stories and Cathy says she doesn’t remember them. I’m wondering if perhaps one possibility could be Cathy has to tow the party line? I’m wondering if she’s allowed to speak out about abuses as this could embarrass her government? I could see why she’d say she didn’t remember these stories.
Here’s Daisey’s statement from his website:
“This American Life” has raised questions about the adaptation of AGONY/ECSTASY we created for their program. Here is my response:
I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out.
What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic - not a theatrical - enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China.”
Daisey isn’t the first artist to be taken to task for the authenticity of their work. This controversy reminds me of Oprah’s interview with James Frey who wrote “A Million Little Pieces.” She subsequently found out some of his stories were fictionalized. Well, it’s not nice to fool Mother Oprah. She publicly challenged him, and then dragged him back on her show where he had to retract each and every item she could find that wasn’t true.
May I suggest if, instead of going after artists, our journalists (I’m not suggesting Oprah’s a journalist) would question, scrutinize, fact check, call for accountability from our politicians instead of giving them a free pass we would never have gone into Iraq, or had a global economic melt down, Wall Street crooks would be in jail, people wouldn’t have been swindled out of their pensions and homes, NAFTA, the Patriot Act, NDAA, Citizens United, and H.R. 347 would never have passed and all would be well with world. Well, maybe not but you get my drift.
Mike Daisey’s created a piece of art that sheds light and reveals the truth. As he states he’s not a journalist or a reporter; he’s a storyteller and a damn good one. In a solo play when you’re weaving the threads of the tapestry sometimes one must knot the threads or change the colors slightly to make the story connect on a deeper or more profound level and what you get is a much richer piece. Did Van Gogh’s Starry Night copy the night sky exactly? Does Monet depict the exact replica of a Water Lilly? It’s called art. And art reveals a deeper truth then any newspaper, news show or reporter ever could.
Daisey’s intention was to write a piece to make people aware of what’s really going on in China and who’s really making our stuff. His goal was to make us care and if this gets our attention then so be it. Most Americans are sleepwalking through their consumerism and, in fact, when I recently mentioned the Apple abuses to a friend who owns an iPhone he lashed out at me with such vehemence I was completely shocked. I guess I hit a nerve.
This over reaction and hysteria over Daisey just shows me how far askew our corporate culture is and proves Daisey’s point about the religion of Apple and how we worship at the House of Jobs. But we can all participate by caring enough to hold these corporations accountable so they change their inhumane, unethical practices.
The flier we received after the performance is titled CHANGE IS POSSIBLE and gives five ways to impact change. I somewhat paraphrase them here.
1. You Can Speak to Apple
Email Tim Cook @ firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know their inhumane practices are not acceptable and must change.
2. You Can Speak to the Industry
Contact Nokia, Dell, Samsung, LG, Motorola or any other electronic company you purchase from.
3. You Can Think Differently About Upgrading
Don’t run out and buy the next cool item Apple or any other electronics company makes. Think before you do. Ask do I need this? This takes the power away from the corporation and puts it back in the hands of the consumer where it belongs.
4. You Can Connect and Educate Yourself
China Labor Watch and SACOM are organizations that work to track and hold accountable our largest corporations, which routinely abuse, poison and exploit China’s people to make electronics.
5. You Can Tell Others
“In a world of silence, speaking itself is an action. It can be the first seeds of actual change. Do not be afraid to plant them.”
The handout concludes with the words,
‘Spread the virus.”
Awareness is the first step and if Daisey’s done that then he’s done his job. Don’t shoot the messenger.
NOTE: Jonathan Mark, 19, a student at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University School of Design incorporated Steve Jobs’ silhouette into the original bite of the Apple logo.