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Rotten to the core?
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Rotten to the core?

The human voice is a miracle, especially when wielded by a gifted storyteller. On Saturday night I found myself at Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., sweating the details of a new operating system. Soon I was in Shenzhen, China, home of a Dickensian factory whose owner is responsible for many of the consumer electronics purchased in the United States. Finally, I was in a dark place, wrestling with the consequences of every purchase I make.

I was taken to each of these places by Mike Daisey, whose one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs opened Oct. 11 at Manhattan’s Public Theater. Daisey, a mountain of a man dressed all in black, sits at a table, a glass of water nearby. No props, no video, and no (don’t get him started on this) PowerPoint. The evening is putatively a tribute to and dissection of Jobs. Hilariously and often affectionately, Daisey traces the visionary’s journey from the garage where he and Steve Wozniak dreamed up Apple to the corporate suites where he continued to transform industry, entertainment, communications, and the economy even up to his death this month at age 56. (Daisey has been performing the show for a number of months, and the show’s timing is either a piece of bad luck or a public relations coup — take your pick.)

But there is another story Daisey wants to tell, this one about the human cost of our love affair with stuff. Daisey describes Shenzhen — a city of over 10 million people that most of us never heard of — as an industrial dystopia. It is home to Foxconn, where 430,000 workers turn out Apple products and other consumer goods under conditions that would have made a robber baron blanch (or at least envious). Daisey and a translator interviewed workers, some as young as 13, as they emerged from the factory after one of their 12-hour-plus shifts. Some sleep in dormitories, in cinder block rooms where bunk beds are stacked to the ceiling. If you’ve read anything at all about Foxconn, it was probably an article about a rash of suicides at its Shenzhen plant last year.

Daisey describes the monotonous — and eerily quiet — assembly lines, where workers’ hand muscles twist and atrophy after years of repetitive motions. It would be so easy for managers to rotate the workers among various tasks, Daisey reminds us, but that would require someone to actually care.

Daisey also interviewed union organizers who must work in secret or risk life sentences in jail.

It is only fair to note that Apple isn’t the only company to export its manufacturing — and soul — to China. No doubt Daisey focuses on Apple because of Jobs’ name recognition and the symbolic disconnect between the popularity and elegance of Apple products and the squalor under which many of the devices are made. Plus, Daisey is a self-described geek, a slave to Jobs’ genius since the launch of the Apple II. His tone is less that of a consumer advocate than of a disenchanted lover. Jobs had it in his power to rein in the excesses of free market capitalism, Daisey laments, but at some point stopped believing he could change the world.

In an epilogue rewritten after Jobs’ death, Daisey says his goal is to leave each of his listeners with a “virus” — a line of code that will activate their conscience each time they swipe their fingers lovingly over the iPhone’s touch screen.

You leave the theater under a cloud of culpability, although Daisey doesn’t suggest what to do with all this guilt. That is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his monologue-cum-sermon. I think we all suspect that our comfortable 21st-century lifestyles are made possible by the toils of people working under 19th-century conditions. We justify this by suggesting that China and other newly industrialized countries are merely going through the same birth pangs that preceded our own post-industrial success story. Besides, take away these factory jobs, however grim, and the workers would be condemned to even worse lives in the countryside.

Daisey’s show strips away these rationalizations, and replaces them with — I don’t know what exactly. Pick your topic — global warming, the economic meltdown, campaign finance — and the dominant national mood is one of futility. Sure we can recycle, invest in “socially responsible” funds, or vote this or that jerk out of office. But as environmentalist and economist Gernot Wagner wrote last month in The New York Times, the changes necessary to heal the environment “are so large and profound that they are beyond the reach of individual action.” Only macro-economic incentives will make a difference — and good luck with that.

Like the protesters on Wall Street, we find ourselves mad as hell, but not sure what we’re not supposed to take anymore.

The Jewish answer to this dilemma is to quote Pirkei Avot: “It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it.” That seems to be Mike Daisey’s message as well. But given the scale of the challenges he describes, it doesn’t seem like an adequate response.

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