A Trip to Shenzhen China Can Make a Guy Hate His iPhone
- By CATHERINE RAMPELL - The New York Times - September 29, 2011
MIKE DAISEY, one of the great solo storytellers of contemporary theater, has traveled the world performing sharp, polemical and extemporaneous monologues about Amazon.com, national security, James Frey and a host of other subjects. He brings his latest piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” to the Public Theater from Oct. 11 through Nov. 13.
Half of the show profiles Mr. Jobs, Apple’s former chief executive, the brilliant micromanager who acknowledged in 2004 that he was battling pancreatic cancer. The other half describes Mr. Daisey’s trip to Shenzhen, China, where he posed as a wealthy businessman to infiltrate factories where Apple products and other electronics are made. He says he witnessed inhumane conditions and interviewed workers outside of factories who said they were as young as 12.
Mr. Daisey spoke by phone recently with Catherine Rampell about what defines a “tech geek” and how his exposure to Chinese factories has changed his relationship with his beloved iPhone. These are excerpts from that conversation.
Q. How did you first become interested in Apple and Steve Jobs as the subject for a monologue?
A. I’ve used their products my whole life and have been deeply influenced by Steve Jobs, the way many people have, because he is so associated with his design. The way he sort of dominates Apple means that it really feels like you’re having a conversation with him when you use the devices. I’ve wanted to talk about Apple for a long time, but I don’t do monologues unless there’s something compelling in collision with something else in my life. There was nothing really to talk about until a couple years ago, when I started reading and learning about the working conditions in southern China and investigating the supply chain.
Q. In the show you say that Mr. Jobs is not really a “tech geek.” What do you mean?
A. I mean that he’s far too charismatic to be really what we traditionally think of as a tech geek. He’s more of a showman, a salesman. There’s a lot more of Barnum in him than there is Spock.
Q. There’s a certain theater that comes with Apple product announcements and the entire experience of the Apple store. What do you think of Mr. Jobs as an artist?
A. Well I think that he’s tremendously effective as an artist in that sense. However, it’s deeply unfortunate that he sold out his ideals.
This is someone who had an opportunity to transform the world with these devices and then did. He started as someone whose devices were forged out of piracy, and today it’s the most locked-down computer company in the world. As a capitalist I’m sure that it’s very attractive. But if we’re talking about him as an artist, I’d say that he completely lost track of his ideals.
Q. Have you softened the show because it might feel callous to criticize a man who has serious health problems?
A. The idea that [Mr. Jobs] could pass away is a tremendous distraction from the really essential story. To be truthful, it’s difficult to know that we are so hungry to be distracted from the unfortunate and uncomfortable situation we’ve created for ourselves with China, with our labor, with all of our manufacturing, that we will grasp at whatever it takes to not talk about it.
Q. Did conditions in these factories surprise you?
A. I’d expected conditions to be bad, to be worse than I’d ever experienced, and I’ve lived a relatively comfortable life. What was shocking to me was the level of dehumanization built into the systems that have been put into place by American corporations in collusion with suppliers.
Q. Many Americans resent that China is “stealing” our manufacturing jobs. What do you think about those concerns now that you have experienced firsthand what some manufacturing conditions are like?
A. Let’s be clear. The manufacturing jobs are the way they that they are because we’ve chosen to collude with a fascist country, to strip away the labor conditions that so many thousands fought and died for to make possible. It’s not a function of manufacturing. They’re a function of our decision to strip away essential human rights.
Q. One of the implications of your show is that consumers should think more critically about the devices they buy. But there may not be a more ethical competitor to turn to. How do you hope your show will change viewers’ choices as consumers?
A. The situation we find ourselves in is not terribly different than it was for the organic food movement in the 1950s, an era when the idea that food should not be treated with pesticide was bizarre because people didn’t even understand why you wouldn’t want your food in a can.
In other words the act of making people think about these issues is a revolutionary act because no one is thinking about them.
Q. Have you bought any new Apple products since putting together this show?
A. I haven’t. I can’t undo the truth, and so I find myself making do with the devices that I have.
There’s a hunger in very controlling companies like Apple to create planned obsolescences sooner rather than later, so it will become more and more difficult to stay functional. As a consequence I’m going to have to make some decisions in time.
Q. But I take it you still own Apple products you had bought before researching this show.
A. If I throw them away, I’ll just have to find another device made the same way in order to continue being in conversation with people. Like right now we’re both talking over the telephone, the guts of which were probably made in Shenzhen.