By Jed Horowitz
NEW YORK (Reuters) - In a sold-out theater in downtown Manhattan, two miles from where anti-Wall Street demonstrators are daily using iPhones, iPads and other devices to mobilize their forces, a performance artist named Mike Daisey is mounting a subversive attack on Apple Inc.
Sitting at a stainless steel table set with nothing but a glass of water, the actor slyly describes his geeky devotion to the perfectionist designs and operating systems of the House of Macintosh and its progenitor, Steve Jobs.
Before long, however, Daisey is recounting a trip he took to China to investigate the heavily guarded massive factories where the screens and other parts for countless Apple, Dell, Nokia, Samsung and other manufacturers' products are made.
He meets underage workers, some as young as 12, who describe 12-hour, 14-hour and even 34-hour shifts and dormitory "cubes" stocked sardine-can style with 13 beds. He shows his iPhone to workers with crippled hands, and describes an "epidemic of suicides" prompting Foxconn International Holdings, which he says manufactures more than 50 percent of the world's electronic device parts, to install nets around its massive factories in China. (It's "Foxconn's version of corporate responsibility," he says.)
The show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," oscillates between Daisey's China experiences, including his misadventures posing as a prospective purchaser of both bootleg iPhones and Chinese companies, and his gradual disillusionment with his onetime hero, Jobs.
"I started to think," Daisey says, "and that's dangerous for any religion."
KNIFING THE BABY
He depicts Jobs, whom he never met, as an obsessive who divided his employees into either geniuses or bozos, who hooked the public on beautiful devices that he declared obsolete with each new product iteration ("the master of the forced upgrade," an enemy of nostalgia who was "never afraid to knife the baby") and who put business ahead of ethics.
"He knew these things," Daisey said of the China supply chain, "and he decided not to act."
Daisey is framed onstage by a rectangular structure flashing intermittently with LED-like illuminations to indicate chaos or order. When the stage lights are brightest, however, the frame is empty, opening on a bare view of brick wall and window - a metaphor, perhaps, for the void Daisey sees at the center of the consumer economy or for marketing creating an insatiable craving for new technology. "Steve Jobs," Daisey marvels, was "so good at making us need things we didn't know we needed."
The show opened in New York last week, days after Jobs's death following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Daisey says Jobs had heard about earlier versions of the show from audience members and occasionally responded with the email: "Mike doesn't appreciate the complexity of the situation."
Recalling his own years basking in the nighttime glow of a Mac PowerBook, inhaling the burned PVC incense of a new device firing up and coddling iPod parts in their perfect packaging, Daisey asks: "Do we just see what we want to see?"
DEAR MR COOK
The actor has no illusions that people will give up on electronic devices but as the audience files out of the show, ushers distribute his one-page suggestion of "concrete steps" for what to do next.
Email Apple CEO Tim Cook (Daisey gives his address) with a "firm, polite, resolute" plea to hire independent outside auditors to verify factory conditions.
"Think different" about our need to upgrade to Apple's next amazing device. "If we weighed the human cost of each piece of technology we would become more stringent in our purchasing."
Evoking one of the show's wittiest scenes, in which Daisey despairs about mind-numbing communications tools such as Microsoft's PowerPoint that lets people in the same room avoid talking to each other, the monologist ends with this plea to spread his message about manufacturing in China.
"Talking about it, thinking about it when making purchasing decisions and understanding it is not just symbolic," he writes. "In a world of silence, speaking itself is action."
An Apple spokesman did not return calls for a comment.
(Reporting by Jed Horowitz; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)