Steve Jobs: The Agony and the Ecstasy


By Tony Kontzer

Since the overwhelming majority of you will not be among the lucky few who get to see The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a thought-provoking show featuring monologist Mike Daisey, it's a good thing a certain blogger happened to attend the closing matinee of Daisey's run at Northern California's venerable Berkeley Repertory Theater.

Daisey's tightrope monologue keeps the audience poised between two worlds: Shenzhen, the Chinese city where reportedly oppressed workers make more than half of the world's electronic devices; and the Apple universe, where the minions of Steve Jobs -- Daisey included, by his own admission -- await new devices with breathless anticipation, and then scoop them up in slavish devotion.

Daisey's mission is to make sure we leave the theater clear about the connection he sees between those two worlds, and, hopefully, that we take a conscious understanding of that connection into our future device-purchasing decisions.

What makes the show work so well is Daisey's self-avowed status as an Apple enthusiast and technology geek. He painstakingly describes the joy he feels when shopping for devices, comparing devices to each other, opening the packaging on a shiny new device, and smelling what he calls the "burnt PVC" odor when electricity surges through a device for the first time. Geeks in the audience will nod their heads, touched by the shared experience.

Similarly, as Daisey describes his enterprising 2010 trip to Shenzhen -- and the shine in his eye once reserved for all things Apple begins to fade -- the fellow Apple fans in the theater surely find themselves questioning their collective crush on the mercurial Jobs. Shenzhen, for those who don't know, was a fishing village as recently as the late 1970s.

According to Daisey, today it is a packed metropolis of 14 million, almost all of whom came there specifically to work for foreign companies taking advantage of lax business laws granted to China's "special economic zones," of which Shenzhen is the most successful. Daisey describes the city as one that was essentially built to serve as a low-cost outsourced factory for international electronics makers looking to save on labor costs.

Access to the factories -- the most infamous of which is Foxconn, the iPhone producer that made headlines last year after a rash of workers leapt off dormitory roofs to their deaths -- is highly restricted, Daisey reports, with each one surrounded by security walls and armed guards. Still, Daisey says he was able, against all odds, to interview hundreds of factory workers, witness their working conditions first hand, and meet with factory bigwigs. How did he do this? He says he posed as an American industrialist.

While Apple is the focus of Daisey's carefully constructed rant, his tale most likely could be told in some form about any company that designs and sells electronic devices. What makes Apple particularly culpable in Daisey's allegations, in my eyes, is its very own history, intertwined with Jobs'. Apple, lest we all forget, was once the upstart of the computer industry. Born in the shadow of IBM, and long languishing behind Microsoft, Apple is the company that announced its arrival with a legendary 1984 Super Bowl ad paying homage to the George

Orwell classic novel "1984." The ad depicted a revolutionary woman using a hammer to stop the broadcast of a brainwashing overlord being watched by throngs of expressionless drones. Fast forward 27 years, and Jobs appears to have assumed the overlord role.

In working toward his goal of making Apple devices the best designed and most ubiquitous in the world, Jobs at some point appears to have decided that supporting one of the most reportedly inhumane labor environments in the world is an acceptable trade-off. The hypocrisy is, to be blunt, alarming.

Oh, sure, a year after admitting that children as young as 15 had been found working in the factories that produced its devices, Apple took some minimal steps to address the situation. But in the eyes of many, it's too little, too late. Oh, and by the way, Daisey says during his show that he spoke with workers in Shenzhen as young as 12 years old, who stood alongside elderly workers well past their retirement age. He says they endure endless, grueling shifts without speaking, and sleep in overcrowded dorm rooms under constant camera surveillance.

It's not exactly what I imagine Jobs had in mind when he famously asked John Sculley, the man Apple recruited from PepsiCo in 1983 to run the company, if instead of selling sugar water he wanted to change the world. Jobs was right, of course -- Apple did change the world. Only, as Daisey helps us to understand, not all of that change was for the best.

Mike Daisey will be performing The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs March 23-April 10 at the Wooly Mammoth Theater in Washington, D.C., and April 27-May 27 at the Seattle Repertory Theater.


10 Comments for "Steve Jobs: The Agony and the Ecstasy"

  • Tony Kontzer April 19, 2011 3:34 pm

    CTD: I'm torn--I don't know whether to react to your indirectly calling me a Luddite as an insult or a compliment. ;-) I kind of figured someone would respond to that sentence the way you did. I don't mean to pretend that things aren't hard on the rural Chinese. I'm sure many of the Foxconn workers couldn't wait to escape the hard labor on the farms and discover the big bright world. But I'm also sure many of them have buyer's regret given what certainly sounds like oppressive working conditions. Some no doubt are pining for the situations they left, and some are thinking, "there has to be something better." Naturally, there are also many who probably think working at Foxconn is a dream come true, and who would become despondent if their jobs were pulled out from under them. My view is that this portion of the workers is most likely ill-informed and misguided, and would, in fact, land in a better place anyway.

  • CTD April 04, 2011 3:05 pm

    "I have little doubt that if all the factories of Shenzhen were shut down, the workers would ultimately land in a better place, whether that's back home working farmlands, or moving on to jobs in places where they get fair pay for a fair day's work." This confused perception of the workplace is common to Luddites. The workers in Shenzhen have already intentionally left the farm for better jobs at Foxconn. I'm not sure why anyone would want to take this option away from them.

  • Allyson Stinchfield March 11, 2011 3:40 am

    Thank you, Tony, for seeing this show and sharing it with us. In my many years doing PR in this field, I hardly ever see articles or even blogs that share these perspectives. Seems like hundreds of media have the same tech beat and cover all shiny new Apple things compared to 2 or 3 that care enough to write about the humanity involved. Refreshing. Also, thank you for your response to Ulan. Also refreshing. Best, Allyson

  • Tony Kontzer March 09, 2011 7:18 pm

    Okay, first to Ulan (and just to disclose, he's a friend/neighbor of mine who's very passionate about many things, including Apple's technology): I don't think I "fell" for anything. And I don't read Daisey's show as "complaining." He's merely sharing his perspectives from an unusual experience of getting to see first-hand what the workers of Shenzhen endure. Corporations do bad--I understand this. I think I was trained from a very young age to understand this. But whether we can find other companies doing better (or worse) isn't important. And I don't mean to be picking on Apple. I'm merely trying to rely some interesting perspectives our readers may be lacking. The fact that Daisey is a privileged, middle-class white man is irrelevant in my opinion--that he's a human being who cares how other humans are treated on the road to providing him with technological thrills is what I believe matters. Also, when you ask what Apple's supposed to do? Yes, they SHOULD pull production from Shenzhen and move it someplace where they can rely on a manufacturer who pays competitive wages, provides healthcare benefits, and does more than put up nets when dozens of employees who see no reason for hope and start flinging themselves off of roofs. Apple made $6 BILLION IN PROFIT in its most recent quarter. Clearly, delivering value to shareholders is a lot more people than making sure the workers who assemble your products are able to live and work in a dignified fashion. As for the ensuing dialog, I wish I was the kind of journalist who could shed light on what's going on in Shenzhen and help spur change. Alas, my job is much smaller--I'm just here to share my perspectives as they relate to information technology. And clearly, this is an issue worth debating, regardless which side of the debate you fall on. I have little doubt that if all the factories of Shenzhen were shut down, the workers would ultimately land in a better place, whether that's back home working farmlands, or moving on to jobs in places where they get fair pay for a fair day's work. Yes, there would be pain, as there is in all change. But in the end, the main price would be that Apple (or any of the other electronics makers who are complicit in this) would make a bit less money, a few investors would get ruffled, and Westerners would pay a little more for their precious devices. I wouldn't shed a tear for any of them--and I can't say that now for the workers of Shenzhen.

  • SuzyB March 09, 2011 11:46 am

    How sad for them... not. I worked at 12 - as a babysitter - and I worked at 15 - as a store clerk. Maybe I did not *endure endless, grueling shifts without speaking* but I was proud of earning my OWN money. I learned early on that handouts were NOT the way to go. So Shenzhen is not Utopia, but then neither is Cupertino. What these people are getting is an OPPORTUNITY which they never had before. An opportunity to make a choice. An opportunity to do things differently. Can things be made better? Of course! they always can. But don't take away their opportunity in the name of some phony equality that insures destitution, famine and Stalin-like sameness.

Leave a Comment