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Theater Review: Why Mike Daisey’s Critique of Apple Is Too Glib to Really Sting

Mike Daisey in The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

I write this review on a machine masterminded and commissioned by Steve Jobs, a machine that is, as I type, connected to another machine masterminded and commissioned by Steve Jobs, in an apartment where Steve Jobs holds patents on just about every object any self-respecting burglar would bother burgling. Even in death, the man circumscribes my life. I am, in other words, not unlike the monologist Mike Daisey: A middle-class, under-50, Brooklyn-dwelling consumer of vaguely virtuous-seeming hipware. I don’t shop around too much for my personal electronics. My default setting is Jobs, the man who more or less invented the concept of “personal electronics” — I’m just another dues-paying layperson in the church of Apple.

But Daisey, being a storyteller (21 Dog Years, The Last Cargo Cult), takes it a bit further in his latest Spalding Gray–ish rumination, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Jobs, Daisey tells us, was his hero, and he is a technology fanatic, an Apple fetishist — his very funny raptures on the look, the feel, even the smell of cutting-edge gear are so vivid they’re practically hallucinations. (Especially the way Daisey delivers them, scream-sung in his trademark octave-spanning baritenor of carefully calibrated hyperbole.) For years, he faithfully adopted Jobs’s brainchildren, no questions asked, snapping up iBaubles seasonally, constantly redecorating when the new style came in. (He recalls his youthful naïveté in the iMac days, when he was foolish enough to think this was the end of the line, that everything in his life would forever be “bulbous and fruit-colored.”) And like most first-worlders, Daisey never considered where these magical white lozenges, with their strokable candied apps and river-stone smoothness, actually came from, or who built them, or how so many of them could be manufactured so quickly at costs low enough to permit Apple the sort of meteoric profits that make the next generation so labor-intensively refined. And then Daisey went to China, to see where Apples come from. (Taking a page from Spurlock and Moore, he inveigled his way into Foxconn, the most notorious of Apple’s manufacturing partners, posing as an American businessman.) And his eyes were opened.

This is where Agony gets a little bit agonized. Daisey’s chief subjects have always been Himself and Capitalism, in no particular order; I’d humbly suggest he put them in order. His stated reverence for Jobs feels exaggerated for effect, to contrast with his disappointment at the tech pioneer’s failure to lead on labor reforms. How could this turtleneck-wearing, Dylan-worshipping world-shaker allow child labor in his supply chain? How could Mr. Think Different be so unthinking, so indifferent when it came to the crippled hands of his preteen labor force? In his most damning image, Daisey patiently explains to his thrift-store-shopping, Etsy-conscious crowd that, if they’re in the market for “handmade” goods, they need look no further than their iPhones.

But it’s downhill from there, in elegance and even in coherence. Daisey throws in a few well-known mudpies to help make his case: How Jobs was a Tiger-Dad perfectionist, fearsomely demanding of his underlings, obsessed with a manic, monadic cleanliness-of-design that may have pointed more toward mental illness than Zen serenity. How he kinda-sorta-maybe screwed over Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the true computer “hobbyist” in whom Daisey conveniently locates the soul of pure, primal, “good” geekery. How Jobs transformed computers from infinitely customizable, open-source boxes of wonder into an antiseptic white labyrinth, proprietary and sealed off - what the anti-Apple gadfly Richard Stallman calls “a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom.”

What Daisey doesn’t address, strangely, is the level of comfort with this situation all of us dead-eyed Apple acolytes have developed. He seems to assume no one he’s addressing has ever considered the dubious origins of the products they rely on or the vitrine sheen of injustice that coats just about every manufactured item priced within reach of the average mortal. And in doing so, he actually lets us — and himself — off the hook. This very entertaining show climaxes in a battle hymn of self-aggrandizement, where Daisey grandly takes credit for opening our minds and advises us to “think” about what we “buy.” Essentially, we're invited to exit Jobs' church and enter Daisey's. And why not? His creed isn't all that taxing. He does not call for a boycott. He does not make an prescriptive suggestions of any kind; nor does he claim to have changed his own buying habits. He predicts, instead, that this very show is a “virus” that will infect iTopia. (“Fair-trade” alternatives, in the world of electronics manufacture, appear to be practically nonexistent.) He requests/intones, Morpheus-like, that we “jailbreak” our minds, which have been industrially lathed into submission by the hypnotic Jobsian aesthetic and preprogrammed with the myth that a clean-lined product implies a clean provenance. You're not changing the world by buying an Apple product, Daisey wants you to know, but you are changing the world by coming to this show. Outside, you're presented with a commemorative leaflet, urging the familiar measures: write to the company, demand reform, join a watchdog group, don’t run out and get an upgrade unless you really need one, etc. Laudable ideas, all, but a great “mind-opening”? I don’t think so.

How disappointing. For a good stretch of his highly engrossing show, Daisey’s on track to leave us with a truly distressing idea: that we’ve adjusted to injustice. That, in a world of metastatic injustice, we’ve simply chosen the best-designed injustice out there, the commodity whose brand feels most consistent with how we’d like to see ourselves. That everyone in this theater, including Daisey, will exit the room and immediately fire up a product assembled by hand, by another human being, possibly a very young human being, who’s likely in a state of profound mental and physical distress, thanks to barbarically intense work shifts. Instead, we’re treated to yet another one-button solution: You’ve seen my show, so feel good about yourself. And, of course, about Daisey. As usual, he is the show. But his lifelong love affair with Apple products doesn’t feel terribly personal, and I don’t, for a second, believe Jobs was his “hero.” (The last ten minutes of Agony have the roughed-over feel of a hastily written obituary, and the “hero” line, in particular, sounds like a sop to the elegiac mood that set in after Jobs died.) Maybe what’s missing here is the agony and ecstasy of Mike Daisey — a personal arc that’s a bit more complex, a bit more compelling than, “I loved Apple products not wisely but too well. Then I went to China and found out they’re evil. So, uh, open your mind.” That’s not much of a “virus”; hell, it’s not even news. Daisey's touchdown is recklessly glib and overmachined - it feels, I hate to say it, indistinguishable from the language of marketing - and it poisons the whole foregoing show. No app for that, I’m afraid.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is at the Public Theater through November 13.

Photo: Stan Barouh