Betabeat made the mistake of stopping by the Apple Store before work last week, forgetting it was the day the new iPhone 4S went on sale. The line stretched down 14th Street. A stream of glowing customers were exiting the store, new phones clutched in their hands. A photographer got down on one knee to shoot a happy British couple. A man in a tweed jacket agreed to speak with a television news crew about his purchase. Our plan to pick up a power cord didn’t seem likely to pan out.
As we walked back to the subway, we passed an Apple employee standing by a far door no had yet noticed. “You need a phone,” the guy whispered. “Full price, but you can cut the line.”
No one knows the lure of Apple products better than Mike Daisey. He is, in geek parlance, an Apple fanboy. “I belong to the Cult of Mac. I have been to the House of Jobs. I have felt the Tao of Steve.”
Mr. Daisey looks the part. He is fat, Chris Farley fat, with a face that emerges and recedes into his neck like an animal into its burrow. He tosses off casual references to long dead coding languages and various races from Lord of the Rings. Sometimes to relax, he claims, he goes home and field strips his Macbook Pro, cleans all 47 individual parts, and puts it back together.
But over the past 14 months, as he has traveled the country performing his one man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mr. Daisey has become a pointed critic of Apple and its charismatic founder. Betabeat caught a sold out performance of his work at the Public Theater the evening after our trip to the Apple store.
The play was a strange mixture. For the first half, Mr. Daisey had the audience in stitches. “I never knew I needed a laptop so thin you could use it to slice bread,” Mr. Daisey exclaimed, miming the act of making a sandwich with his new computer. “But once Apple showed it to me, of course, how could I do things any other way?”
But the humor was a lure, a ruse to get the audience’s defenses down. When that happened, Mr. Daisey pulled back the real curtain, the horrifying details of exactly how Apple devices are made, details he gleaned first-hand on a trip to the FoxConn factory in China where iPhones come to life.
The sad reality is that, while the tech press covers Apple in incredible detail, down to the tiniest rumor about products that don’t yet and may never exist, relatively little attention has been paid to the devil’s bargain that allows Apple to produce such amazing gadgets and such record profits. For the most part tech reporters and bloggers are caught in Jobs’s legendary reality-distortion field, prone to shower him with standing ovations and to treat his passing like the death of a family member.
Wired magazine, which finally covered FoxConn after a spate of worker suicides in late 2010, sent a gadget blogger who, after being trotted around the plant by FoxConn execs, concluded, “But the work itself isn’t inhumane—unless you consider a repetitive, exhausting, and alienating workplace over which you have no influence or authority to be inhumane. And that would pretty much describe every single manufacturing or burger-flipping job ever.”
The FoxConn workers Mr. Daisey met and interviewed were not like the Americans suffering through drudge work at McDonald’s. Many were as young as 12. They worked shifts of 14 hours a day or more, and in fact while Mr. Daisey was in the country, one died after working 34 hours straight. Unions are nonexistent in the country, and when workers’ hands wore out from the repetitive labor of wiping iPhone screens clean, they were simply fired.
After the play, Betabeat stepped out onto the street and turned on our phone, a Droid Bionic from Motorola. We were relieved it wasn’t an Apple product.
An older patron with silver hair huddled next to her husband. They were Public Theater regulars, she explained. “I have always hated computers, but I do love my iPhone. It was just easy to understand.” She pulled it out of her purse and stared at it, holding it away from her face like a dead animal. “I can’t look at this now without feeling guilty.”
“We suck each others dicks all day long about how fantastic our technology is, and the people who make it are dying on the job, not because it would eat into profit margins to change things, but because it would require someone to actually give a damn,” Mr. Daisey told Betabeat when we chatted by phone the following day.
Onstage Mr. Daisey was able to produce impressive gysers of spit while spewing his invective and humor. The phone made a nice buffer.
Wasn’t it a bit hypocritical of Mr. Daisey to condemn Apple when he continued to buy the company’s products? “There are no alternatives in our ecosystem,” Mr. Daisey pointed out, noting that FoxConn makes more than half the electronics purchased by Americans each year. For all I know, my Motorola may have been made there as well. “What I can do is to force people to wrestle with the reality of how their precious gadgets are made.”
The recent death of Jobs has made the play only more timely. “A lot of people treat Steve like a revolutionary saint who wasn’t aware of how, exactly his products got made,” he said. “I wish I was capable of that kind of delusion.”
By and large, Jobs was hailed on his death as a genius and a humanitarian. Many pointed back to his poignant speech on mortality and pursuing one’s passions, which he gave at Stanford’s 2005 commencement, as a reminder of what kind of man he was.
“How can you watch the speech and hear him espouse these ideals—a man who never gave a dime to a good cause in his life, who co-opted the language of revolution to his cause, selling things,” wondered Mr. Daisey.
We wondered if Mr. Daisey considered toning the piece down, out of respect for the Apple founder and his long struggle with cancer. The play hasn’t been softened, Mr. Daisey said, but it has been changed to point out that a man regarded by many as a god was indeed mortal in the end. “To be honest, his passing allowed me to see him more clearly—he was my hero, after all,” Mr. Daisey told us with a sigh. “Now that’s he’s gone I can accept how completely he sold out the ideals of his youth.”