Field Research: "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"

Lynn Deregowski ("The Cat's Pajama's") sent me a heads-up about "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," a show currently playing at the Berkeley Rep. "Just thought you'd like to know," she wrote in her email, "seeing it is in our backyard."

The only tickets left were for yesterday's matinee. It also happened to be my {younger, taller, thinner} sister Joni's birthday. I asked if she'd like to come along. "It's field research," I told her. I knew she couldn't say no to field research. After all, she's my publicist; albeit unpaid. I'm lucky to have her. She's hip and plugged in and just like that helped me score my first radio gig. And she says things like "I can’t believe you're not on Facebook yet. Gotta get that set up. It's easy." Joni loves her iPhone, texts a bazillion people 24/7, and can’t wait to get her new iPad (a birthday gift from her husband) as soon as Apple releases it on March-whatever. I don't know the date because I'm not hip and plugged-in. That's what {younger, taller, thinner} sisters are for.

As my volunteer-publicist, Joni reads the blog as often as she can (in between work-duties and text-duties). She knows all about the Apple/Foxconn mess. Actually, it was Joni's college-son Anthony who first clued me into the Foxconn suicides and Apple's connection to the products slavishly made there. Anthony is a Mac user. I use an iPhone and iPod. So the three of us have been wringing our hands and feeling guilty and doing absolutely nothing tangible about the situation. We all love our Apple products. We all hate how they're made. And so, when I heard about "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" and invited Joni, maybe I hoped buying tickets and going to the show would absolve us of our Apple-user sins, and by extension Anthony, too. And by further extension, the entire evil-Apple-user world.

"So wait," publicist-Joni said, "for my birthday present you're taking me to see a play about the Foxconn suicides?" I nodded; decided perhaps lunch first would make the outing more festive. Joni could text to her heart's content. I wouldn't roll my eyes.

*

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is a one-man show created by and starring Mike Daisey. "I perform extemporaneously," Daisey said in an interview with The Berkeley Rep Magazine, "so I speak in the air and the words compose themselves in real time." Hmm. What did that mean, exactly? I had no idea what to expect. Lunch had been relaxing and delicious. I hated to end it all and rush off to the play. Joni had grilled chicken with melted provolone on a long, golden French roll and a batch of freshly-fried potato chips. I had a green salad with grilled chicken and dressing on the side. I know, it doesn't seem fair that Joni is the way she is {taller, thinner}; but there you have it. Truth be told, she never stops moving all day long. Calories don't so much melt as slip off her. She's like Teflon to them. So that's why, when the lights go up and I see Mike Daisey sitting there on the stage, a rush of affection comes over me. He's John-Candy-large in size and humor. He gives himself over completely to his role. He continuously pats the sweat off his cheeks, nose and forehead--it's a losing battle--and still manages to hold the audience in his ample hands.

He has been in love with computer technology, he tells us, since he was a kid and his wealthy grandparents gave his not-so-wealthy family a computer. The computer was such a big deal that it had "its own room." Now, he says, he unwinds after a performance by taking apart his laptop, setting all the pieces out before him, and putting them all back in. He lives for every new router, every new gadget, every new upgrade. He loves "the smell of new technology."

The clipped monologue weaves back and forth between two stories: Steve Jobs' rise and fall and rise again at Apple; and Daisey's visit to the Foxconn factory town of Shenzhen, China, (population over 500,000) to see for himself how the Apple products he reveres are actually made. Just as Steve Jobs rises and falls, Mike Daisey rises (he blissfully worships at the Church of Apple) and falls (he questions his Apple-religion, sets out to discover more about it, and becomes disillusioned). But whereas Steve Jobs returns to Apple and eventually triumphs, Mike Daisey is left to rage against the Apple machine.

Daisey tells us what he saw in Shenzhen. He describes and masterfully shows the workers as automatons. Cheaper than machines. Pushed to move faster than machines. Expected to work in silence 13 hours a day, often more (so much for Apple's "Supplier Responsibility Progress Report" that claims maximum 60-hour work weeks). Expected to sleep in dormitories where beds on beds on beds are stacked like coffins. While Daisey was in Shenzhen, a worker who'd put in a 16-hour day died. Daisey and his interpreter interviewed long lines of workers who waited to answer his questions. He asked each his / her age. Often the answer was: "13."

The suicide-prevention nets were on the Foxconn buildings when Daisey visited. He heard about how workers were flinging themselves from their dormitory windows. He heard and saw worse than that, he says, but won't tell the audience. We are left to imagine.

There's no way, says Daisey, that a detail-obsessed company like Apple can not know how the workers making its products are treated. Here he faces his dilemma and we face ours. "I regularly fall asleep with my iPhone in my bed," Daisey says in the aforementioned Rep Mag, "I have it right before bed and I fall asleep and in the morning I have to find it again." He loves his stuff and we love ours. Even after knowing the truth about Shenzhen and Foxconn, even after knowing Apple is culpable. It's really not Steve Jobs' agony and ecstasy at all, is it? It's ours.

As Joni and I leave the theatre, docents hand out fliers with the heading: "What Happens Next?" Daisey writes: "If you choose not to ignore what you've learned tonight, here are some concrete steps you can take." He suggests contacting Apple Customer Relations to give them feedback. Or contacting other electronics companies. Or connecting with advocacy groups like China Labor Watch. Or telling others. Telling others is not just symbolic, he writes. It's a way to "plant the seeds of change."

It's raining outside the theatre, but the chilled air feels clean and good. Joni's texting, making up for two hours with her iPhone turned off. I check my own iPhone for new emails. We are hopelessly addicted to our Apple products. It's unrealistic to think we can change the way Apple manufactures its products. I am only sure of one thing: Next year on Joni's birthday we'll see a chick flick.

Before heading home, Joni and I stop in at a baking supply store we'd heard about called Spun Sugar. The company motto is "Come Enjoy the Sweet Life!" It's filled with all kinds cake decorations, colored sugars and baking chocolates. And there are rows of generous-sized cookies, all freshly baked by the staff. "Want to get one?" the {taller, thinner} sister asks. And since it's her birthday, I can't refuse. We choose a chewy ginger cookie to share--the perfect antedote for "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs."