Mike Daisey bringing his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs to Berkeley Rep is not quite tantamount to someone producing “Angels in America” at, like, the Crawford, Texas community theater. But an analogy exists in that Daisey’s show delivers a message many in the crowd will simply not want to hear.

The show in large part is about working conditions Daisey discovered while visiting the Foxconn manufacturing plant in Shenzen, China. The company, often cited as the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronics, turns out all those Apple iPhones and iPads, as well as products for other manufacturers like Dell.

In May, 2010, reports surfaced that 10 Foxconn workers over the since the beginning of the year had killed themselves amid brutal working conditions

The story created a public relations headache, to say the least, for Apple. (For a refutation of the media’s portrayal of the Foxconn suicides as a cluster, see here. Update Jan 25: See below for a refutation of the refutation that Daisey sent us.)

From a review of Daisey’s show in today’s San Jose Mercury News:

In this freewheeling theatrical essay, (Daisey) doesn’t just hold Jobs’ feet to the fire. He doesn’t just question the morality of capitalism. He forces theatergoers to take a hard look at the glowing screens in their pockets and ask where they came from and at what cost.

Only a true believer, a man who fieldstrips his MacBook Pro down to its 43 components parts to unwind, could be this shocked and heartbroken to find that the gadgets he adores, those glossy pieces of electronic sculpture known as the iPad and the iPhone, might have been produced under brutal working conditions in China…

What makes Daisey so addictive as a performer is his ability to fuse snarkiness with sociological insight. He has a gift for lacerating self-exposure that also touches the pulse of the culture. He reveals his foibles at length (and indeed this show may be a tad too long) to illuminate our collective blind spots. This time, it’s our fetish for high-tech toys.

As an alpha geek who streams Apple keynote speeches while live blogging in his underwear, he knows that the lust for technology is a powerful aphrodisiac for many of us. He understands the sexiness of “a laptop so thin you could slice a sandwich with it.” An early adopter, he also feels the tug of nostalgia for dot matrix printers so loud they shook the whole house and those terrifying unhappy Mac faces. Good times.

KQED’s Cy Musiker interviewed Daisey on Friday, and it makes for compelling listening. Daisey, who gained access to Foxconn workers by posing as a prospective client of the company, contrasts the grim lives of factory workers to the elegant products created by Apple.

“Rarely are two worlds more divorced that are so integrated,” Daisey says. “Our choices of devices are a little bit like a religion…I was a very devout follower of Apple and of technology…the consequence of the trip for me is that I lost my faith. I don’t enjoy technology…in the same way (because) I know intimately what went into their creation.”

“We are obsessed with design,” Daisey says, “and then we do everything in our power to have no idea how these things are actually made.”

“It’s an incredible, pathetic disgrace…There’s an utter silence over the entire field,” about the issue.

Daisey also discusses what some Apple employees think about the show.

Listen here:

Cy Musiker interviews Mike Daisey[audio:http://ww2.kqed.org/news/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2011/01/Mike-Daisy.mp3]

The show is in rep with Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult until Feb 27 at Berkeley Rep.

You may not agree that there is a moral imperative for users of Apple and other company products to insist they are manufactured under humane conditions. But even if you don’t, after listening to Daisey’s rap those electronic goodies, which so many of us fetishize to some degree, may lose just a little of that come-hither sheen…

Update Jan 25: Mike Daisey himself sends us this post from The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Daisey calls it a “refutation of the refutation,” posted above, about the validity of treating the FoxConn suicides as a cluster of significance. The argument being debunked here is that the suicides at Foxconn are well within the national average of China so should not be taken as an indicator of desperate working conditions. From the post:

…arguments about national averages are a smokescreen. Sure, people kill themselves all the time. But the Foxconn people all work for the same company, in the same place, and they’re all doing it in the same way, and that way happens to be a gruesome, public way that makes a spectacle of their death. They’re not pill-takers or wrist-slitters or hangers. They’re not Sylvia Plath wannabes, sealing off the kitchen and quietly sticking their head in the oven. They’re jumpers. And jumpers, my friends, are a different breed. Ask any cop or shrink who deals with this stuff. Jumpers want to make a statement. Jumpers are trying to tell you something.

Also, consider this. Walmart has 1.4 million employees in the United States. Can you remember a time when 10 or 15 Walmart workers jumped to their deaths from the roofs of Walmart stores over the course of a few months? Have you ever heard of Walmart asking employees to sign a no-suicide contract, or putting safety nets up on all of its buildings? If this did happen, would you think maybe something is going on at Walmart? Or would you just say, well, 10 or 15 people out of 1.4 million is still waaaay below the national average?

Britain’s National Health Service has 1.3 million employees. Number of suicides last year involving NHS workers jumping from NHS buildings: zero. Indian Railways has 1.6 million employees. Can you recall the last time 10 or 15 of them threw themselves under trains over the course of a few months? Deutsche Post has half a million employees. Ever heard a story about a dozen of them hurling themselves into letter-sorting machines?

And yes, France Telecom did have a suicide epidemic last year. Guess what. Nobody went around saying that it was no big deal because it was still below the national average in France — instead the official explanation was that the suicides were caused by brutal management harassing workers. The Sarkozy administration took this seriously and got involved and at France Telecom a top executive actually resigned because of the tragedy.

Interview: Monologist Mike Daisey Discusses “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” 25 January,2011Jon Brooks

  • The suicides at Foxconn and France Telecom are caused by the same problem and it’s not brutal working conditions,. Both companies failed to recognize the requirement for Cubicle Level Protection for knowledge workers.

    Foxconn uses cubicles in offices but did not recognize that electronics assembly line workers use the same level of mental investment and require the same protection as office workers. In France they bought modern workstations but either did not install them correctly or made changes to defeat Cubicle Level Protection.

    There has been another suicide in China since the salaries were raised and promises of other changes. They will continue until the design problem is corrected. The full cubicle is not needed of course but there should be a peripheral vision blocking scheme between workers placed that close together.

    Pictures and video taken by news crews touring both facilities show the failure to provide Cubicle Level Protection. VisionAndPsychosis.Net has these pictures available linked from the HOME page.


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. He was also the editor of EconomyBeat.org, which documented user-generated content about the financial crisis and recession. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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