Monday, February 27, 2012

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs


Sometimes someone comes along and puts together a piece of theater that plays to all of my odd-ball interests: my irrational white-hot hatred of Steve Jobs, my organized labor youth, and my love of a good storyteller.*   Mike Daisey's The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs managed to hit all my marks.  It is a monologue about Daisey's investigation into how Apple products are made and the discovery of the horrific labor practices employed by Apple's supply chain in China.

With precise detail, Daisey introduces us to the world of the black market in Asia (with a nice reference to Mos Eisley in Star Wars), to massive factory complexes larger than the mind can comprehend, to underage, smart workers who represent the future of a nation, to a creative and resourceful translator and to our own complicity in this system and process.  Without lecturing, he paints a picture of how our technology hungry behavior and corporations and governments with no care toward working conditions conspire together to form the perfect storm for labor abuses. 

I mean the galling fact of the situation with Apple is that they sit on a massive pile of cash--they don't even need to cut these corners.  But they do.  Daisey in fact tells one particular tale of how Jobs got Steve Wozniak to do a nearly impossible programming job in 3 days even though the client had not asked for those outrageous demands (and then of course lied about how much he got paid for it). Jobs did it because he wanted things to be more efficient, regardless of the cost to Wozniak.

I cannot even discuss Steve Jobs without my blood pressure rising.  I'm not sure if it's his overt narcissism, the cult of personality he fostered, or the undying devotion to everything he said and did that made me naturally suspicious.  Or simply the corporate governance issues that I think plagued the company.   And I don't care if Jobs had visions of a future I could not even imagine.  I still don't think he should be celebrated if the one thing he sacrificed for this X-ray vision of the future was his humanity--moreover the humanity of those around him.

The reality of this show was that even though Daisey was specifically calling out Apple it is really the question of how all electronics companies do business in China.  He does not over-simplify the discussion but he asks the audience as consumers to take action.

We know there is a cost/benefit analysis of everything corporations do.   But it does pose the question that if you spend a single dollar of your corporation's funds on a Foosball table maybe you ALSO need to act if you are knowingly poisoning workers who work for you somewhere else in the world.  You can argue that foreign governments are the problem.  Lack of regulation.  Failures of those countries to police their own.  But no one told you you had to do business there.  You made the choice based on the cost of labor.  We all know it.  But labor = people.  And this show is here to remind us of that simple fact. 

Daisey wryly points out that in a world where everyone is desperate to hearken back to yesteryear for a world of handmade goods, these electronics are in fact handmade but we don't want to look at those hands gnarled from injury, overuse and abuse.  We tend to focus on labels (organic, free-trade, locally-sourced, Made in China) without actually looking at anything holistically.  Again, it is nice to see a show that asks you as the audience to think, to act, to consider your own role in this world.  It was refreshing to see a piece of overt political theater that also offered a strong story.  But it feels rare indeed.  I worked on an anti-sweatshop labor play back when I was in college, I saw The Normal Heart on Broadway last year and I saw Blood and Gifts this year.  But in the many years in between I can't think of a single piece of political theater that asked me to explore a contemporary and ongoing issue (and don't say Hair--ok you can say Hair but I might disagree with you on it being relevant to contemporary anti-war discussions but I do think the revival was relevant to discussion of equality even if I think a black woman should be able to play Sheila).

As I sat in the darkened theater I kept thinking about 80's movies that took on the question of organized labor and workplace dangers (Matewan, Norma Rae, Silkwood) and started thinking how little we talk about organized labor any more.  Or if we do it is more likely a discussion of rich pension plans, bloated benefits to workers, the high costs of unions, and lazy workers.  The conversation has shifted.  How have we gotten here?  The monologue reminded me exactly what labor unions were put in place for--to protect workers from unfair and unsafe working conditions.  Of course, he raises the issue of unions in the monologue but in China there are the public unions which are corrupt and the secret unions which are trying to change things.

When I went away to college, my college roommate and I discovered our fathers worked in the two most dangerous jobs in America.  Her father was a coal miner.  My father was a firefighter.   Both our fathers were very active in their unions.  We'd both grown up in worlds where there was no question about how important unions were to fighting for workplace protections.  I imagine we were probably one of the last generations to probably experience this.  I'm glad my roommate's father survived a lifetime in the mines and made it to retirement.  My Dad was not so lucky.** 

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is running through March 18.  It is a great opportunity to see a show that is changing the dialogue of business and corporate responsibility as it is being performed.   Daisey has made the transcript available under an open-license for performance or use.  A worthwhile story that could change people's lives merely through dissemination. 

*I felt like I was cheating on Daniel Kitson by going to see another storyteller but Daisey in appreciation of this made a nice Kitson joke for me during the show and is apparently a fan of Daniel's.

**Not to be Debbie Downer.  For those who do not know, my father died from health complications from an on the job injury.  His death is considered, by his union, an in-the-line-of-duty death. 

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