When Mike Daisey barreled into town last year with The Last Cargo Cult, his amusingly eloquent rant on the religion of materialism, he was surrounded by mountains of crates and boxes. For The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, his entertainingly caustic rant on the Cult of Mac, the stage is cleaner—a glass table and aluminum chair backed by a pristine skeletal square outlined in L.E.D. lights—sort of an iStage, circa...oh, about 2003, before everything Apple got slenderized.
There’s a lot of Daisey’s prose, but it’s also lean and spare. When he speaks of the marketing savvy with which Jobs makes us “need things we didn’t even know we want,” or the planned obsolescence and constant upgrades that mean that “to be in love with Apple is a little like being in love with heartbreak itself,” he’s reducing to punchline haikus that we’ve already intuited. And when he takes us to places we’ve not traveled in our minds—the cities where our iPads and iPods are made, where “people are parts in a machine making machines for us,” he’s no less evocative. What more needs saying after he’s noted that a factory floor is “a Stalinist wet dream,” or that a Chinese manufacturing city “looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself”?
Daisey is not preaching that we should give up our iGizmos. He’s an Apple fanboy himself, who goes all geeky over laptops thin enough to slice sandwiches and relaxes by taking his apart, cleaning it, and putting it back together. But he does want us to think about how these exquisite toys are made; how at a Foxconn plant in Shenzhen just a few miles from Hong Kong, they are hand-crafted because in a Chinese “special economic zone” fingers are cheaper than machines. Delicate fingers. In some cases 12- and 13-year-old fingers. He’s sure of that because in his first couple of hours standing in front of the Foxconn plant where more than half of all the world’s electronics are made, he talked with some of the kids those delicate fingers are attached to.
If it was so easy for him to do that—a loud American lug in a loud Hawaiian shirt—how hard could it be, he wonders, for the corporate types for whom they’re working? “Do you really think that Apple doesn’t know?” he asks.
Daisey’s on a crusade, and it’s one with which I suspect most audience members will be philosophically inclined to agree. I went in prepared to be appalled by stories of child labor and 32-hour work shifts, and I was. (For the record, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro, and I’ll edit it on an iPad.) When he moved from storytelling about iGadgets to truthtelling about their iMakers, I was with him. His tales qualify as iOpening, even if a number of them might as easily be about Nike shoes or any number of other outsourced luxuries Americans take for granted.
He lost me only in the last five minutes, which feel like wishful thinking. After a ferociously entertaining, often harrowing narrative, he details how he’s encased his message in humor so it will get past the firewalls in our minds. Having infected the audience, Daisey declares his message will now go viral.
Having seen what he’s seen, he no doubt needs to believe that, but Daisey is a professional skeptic—and after all that’s gone before, it sounds naïve. Although I’m a professional skeptic, too, I hope he’s right. His cause sure is.