I expected a lot of things when I walked into The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Mike Daisey's now-infamous monologue on labor conditions in Chinese tech factories. But there was one thing that I absolutely never expected: that it would make me think of Ira Glass — you know, the quirky, likeable host of This American Life — as a petty bully. This will require some explaining, so let me begin at the beginning.
Although it seems that practically everyone who reads is aware of the controversy surrounding Daisey's monologue, parts of which aired on a January episode of This American Life (TAL), here's a quick recap (for a longer one, read the CP's recent piece on Mike Daisey): The parts of Daisey's monologue that TAL broadcast dealt with his visits to Chinese factories, specifically those owned by the massive corporation Foxconn, and his account of the things he'd heard and seen while speaking with Foxconn workers. TAL presented the material as a piece of journalism, later found out that it was not, actually, up to journalistic standards, and then aired an entire retraction episode in which they refuted many of Daisey's claims and accused him of being a liar. Many who heard that interview between Glass and Daisey agree that it was one of the most painful things they'd ever heard in the media.
This is the context into which the audience is walking, and though it doesn't, and shouldn't, affect the artistic work itself, one has to admit that it is unavoidably present. Part of this is due to Daisey's set, which consists of a rectangular metal, glass-topped desk with a metal chair behind it, a glass of water, and a black handkerchief. It's just slightly reminiscent of an interrogation room — enough to make you reflect on the irony. But once Daisey takes a seat and begins spinning his fictitious-nonfiction yarns, all of that mess disappears, leaving only an occasional ghostly trace.
Daisey's entrance is a veritable explosion of story and personality, though that entrance is made with his voice, rather than his body. Seated at his desk, Daisey opens his mouth and suddenly we are in Kowloon, Hong Kong, in the black market of the Chungking Mansions. Daisey's after-midnight visit to the noisy, crowded, anything's-for-sale market in search of a cell phone pirate, or jailbreaker, is as vibrant as though we are dreaming it ourselves. Stolen or knockoff cell phones are strung on a line, Daisey tells us, "as if they have been caught." And in a sense they have been. For though it's unclear at the moment who owns our smartphones, Daisey says, we can be sure it's not us. It's Apple, it's AT&T, or Samsung, Verizon. Those jailbroken phones strung up in a seedy stall in Hong Kong are the ones that have been stolen from the corporate coffers because they've been freed of the restrictions that all these companies place on them, and will answer to you or me and our decisions rather than theirs. It's a startling point, and Daisey follows it up with a thought that's even more startling: smartphones are the devices through which we see the world. They're the dominant metaphor through which we operate. And whoever controls the metaphor ... well, they control the world.
From here, Daisey strides, meanders, and tears through scenes dealing with his childhood introduction to Apple computers, the earliest days of Steve Jobs' partnership with (though it sounds like it was more advantage-taking of) Steve Wozniak, the evolution of Apple, and of course, his visits with Chinese factory workers. His delivery ranges from rage-filled shouting to silken whispers and includes certain bizarre impersonations, including one of Wozniak as what Daisey refers to as "an autistic bear." His performances are known for their unscripted moments, and the Spoleto audience didn't miss out. First he called us out for being sleepy, which naturally woke everyone up, and later, when a cell phone started ringing, he joked about a message he had wanted to play at the start of the show in a computer voice, threatening to kill anyone whose phone rang during the performance. It was a little uncomfortable for a few seconds, especially since the person whose cell phone had gone off was a rather elderly and mortified lady; but in the end, these instances of direct communication seemed to lighten the air in the room.
When it came to the scenes that were at the heart of the whole TAL scandal, Daisey presented them almost as they had been originally, and it was strange hearing him say those same words that had incurred the wrath of Glass in what was practically an NPR interrogation (who knew public radio was capable of such things?) As Daisey related after the show in his conversation with CBS's Martha Teichner, he and his collaborator and partner Jean-Michele Gregory cut the contested material — only about six minutes out of the two-hour show — and added in more than they removed. That added material, which addresses the controversy in a subtle, yet effective way, is some of the strongest in the monologue. "Why listen to me?" Daisey asks, after relating some of the horrendous conditions he saw at Foxconn in Shenzhen. "Maybe it's not true." Maybe, he continues, our iPhones and iPads and laptops are made by a happy bunch of Oompa Loompas who just love assembling tiny parts over and over and over again. And then he gets deadly serious. "We know it's true. It's just that we will do anything not to see it."
In that sentence is Daisey's victory, and our shame. Because he's right, isn't he? Who in America isn't aware that industrial working conditions in China seem to run the gamut from highly unfair to downright abusive? Who hasn't heard of the deadly chemical exposure, the collapses from over-work, the grimy cement-block dormitories? Hearing him speak those words with the conviction that he does forces a confrontation with the true heart of the TAL debacle. What do we think matters more: details such as the precise number of factory workers Daisey spoke to, or the working conditions that now are on their way to being improved? Daisey's passion and conviction make the obsessive fact-checking that TAL's Glass and his team undertook seem like nitpicking (especially since Teichner and CBS also independently verified many of his claims for a special in early 2012, and found no fabrications). It makes the Glass that we heard grilling Daisey for 15 excruciating minutes seem like that petty bully, oblivious to the greater questions of truth and fiction that were playing out right under his nose.
It is a testament to his skill as a monologist that Daisey is able to take the scandal, which burned red-hot for weeks, and turn it on its head. Though Daisey may not see it this way, the controversy was a real gift: it pushed both him and his audience members into thinking more deeply about the nature of truth, which seems to grow more elusive the older we get. So often, we do our best not to see it. So often, truth is more than just the facts — it's the human drama that emerges from our interactions with each other, our memories, our own intuitive knowledge.
Now, most everyone will agree that journalism based on intuition is not journalism at all, and in the post-show conversation with Teichner, Daisey fully appropriated his wrongdoing in presenting his monologue as journalism, rather than a piece of theater that was created out of true, but embellished, details. When Teichner asked whether this experience will change the way he writes or presents his work in the future, he paused to consider her question. She went on: "Is it true that if it looks like a duck, acts like a duck, then it must be a duck?" referring to Daisey's monologues being presented so that they seem to be nonfiction. But that is a rather scientific approach, and art needs looser limits in order to thrive. Art has its own way of presenting the truth, which is as valid as that offered by deductive reasoning and scientific observation.
And so Daisey's answer was the only thing an artist and storyteller could say. "No."
Spoleto Festival USA. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. $32. June 2, 3, 5 at 8 p.m. Emmett Robinson Theatre at the College of Charleston. 54 St. Philip St. (843)579-3100