The Tao of Steve Jobs
The Apple co-founder was lionized in death, but his legacy includes Chinese sweatshops.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
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.”
Daisey looks the part. He is Chris Farley fat, with a face that recedes into his neck like an animal into its burrow. He tosses off casual references to long-dead coding languages and 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,” Daisey has become a pointed critic of Apple.
A recent sold-out performance at New York’s Public Theater was a strange mixture. The first half, Daisey had the audience in stitches. “I never knew I needed a laptop so thin you could use it to slice bread,” he said. “But once Apple showed it to me, how could I do things any other way?”
The humor was a ruse to get the audience’s defenses down. When that happened, Daisey pulled out the horrifying details of how Apple devices are made, which he gleaned first-hand on a trip to the FoxConn factory in China where iPhones come to life.
The reality is that, while the press covers Apple down to the tiniest rumor about products that may never exist, relatively little attention has been paid to the devil’s bargain that allows Apple to produce record profits.
LITTLE ATTENTION HAS BEEN PAID TO THE BARGAIN THAT ALLOWS RECORD PROFITS.
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 Daisey met and interviewed were not like 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 Daisey was in the country, one died after working 34 hours straight. Unions are nonexistent, and when workers’ hands wore out from the repetitive labor of wiping iPhone screens clean, they were simply fired.
Wasn’t it hypocritical of Daisey to condemn Apple when he continued to buy the company’s products? “There are no alternatives in our ecosystem,” Daisey pointed out by phone the next day, noting that FoxConn makes more than half the electronics purchased by Americans each year. “What I can do is to force people to wrestle with the reality of how their gadgets are made.”
Jobs’ recent death has made the play only more timely. “A lot of people treat Steve like a revolutionary saint who wasn’t aware of how his products got made,” Daisey said. “I wish I was capable of that delusion.”
Jobs was hailed on his death as a genius and a humanitarian. Many pointed to his speech on mortality and pursuing passions at Stanford’s 2005 commencement.
“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?” Daisey wondered.
I asked if he had considered toning the piece down, out of respect for Jobs and his long struggle with cancer. The play hasn’t been softened, 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.
“His passing allowed me to see him more clearly. He was my hero, after all,” Daisey said with a sigh. “Now that he’s gone I can accept how completely he sold out the ideals of his youth.”
BEN POPPER covers the culture-tech interface for The New York Observer, where this article first appeared.