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On Stage and Afterward, Spotlight on Apple in China

 
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a monologue that challenges Apple over labor conditions in the Chinese factories where the iPhone is made, provokes intense debate

Mike Daisey's “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a provocative monologue that challenges Apple Inc. over labor conditions in the factories in China where the iPhone and other devices are produced, ends a successful run at Berkeley Repertory Theater today.

But Daisey is only beginning a long conversation about what he called “a charged ethical dilemma that is literally in our pockets.”

From the lobby of the theater after the show to technology blogs to the Apple Computer shareholder meeting, the monologue has provoked intense debate. Leander Kahney, editor of the Cult of Mac blog, said posts about the show had received twice the normal volume of comments, most of them negative about the show.

Jobs, who is on a medical leave of absence from Apple, has not seen the show, but Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of the company with Jobs, was in the audience Tuesday night.

Reached by e-mail and asked to comment on the performance, Wozniak said: “I will never be the same after seeing that show.”

To research “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which is the artist's 16th monologue and one of several to deal with technology, Daisey traveled to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, a massive industrial complex where nearly one million workers make electronic devices for Apple and others. He hired a translator and spent three weeks talking with employees in the area. Stories from the workers, many of whom he said were children under 16, are woven into the monologue and give the audience a rare insight into smartphones, tablet computers and other popular devices: they are made largely by human hands.

“The shocking things that Mike said which brought me to tears were so because they came as a first-person story,” Wozniak said. “Mike was living the pain of what he was describing as he told it.”

The issue of the conditions under which iPads and other personal devices are made is a sort of third rail of the digital industry. Apple issues an internally produced annual supplier responsibility report (the 2010 version was released last week) but there is no independent verification system to monitor labor concerns at Foxconn and other Chinese plants. Daisey's audiences, like consumers everywhere, are generally in some degree of denial that there could possibly be ethical issues concerning their personal devices.

“I definitely felt bad about using my gadgets afterward,” Dave Schumaker wrote on the personal-technology site Gdgt.com, where he is community manager. “I arrived at the show carrying my bag containing a MBP [MacBook Pro], iPad and iPhone -- all of which were made in Shenzhen.”

Although The Bay Citizen was unable to locate any Apple employees who would talk about the piece, Daisey said he had spoken with about 100 current or past Apple employees about “their emotional feelings that are brought up by the show.”

Jobs has never communicated directly with Daisey, but word about the monologue has reached Tim Cook, Apple's chief operating officer and acting chief executive. On Wednesday, at Apple's annual shareholder meeting, Cook was asked about “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” According to The Los Angeles Times, Cook said he had not seen it and then gave a passionate defense of Apple's Asian supply chain practices.

In an audience survey conducted by the theater, 23 percent of those questioned said the show would definitely affect their purchases of electronic equipment. But it is hard to take action.

“The Mac faithful simply don't want to think about any of this stuff in China,” Daniel Lyons, the Newsweek journalist who recently retired his Fake Steve Jobs blog, wrote in an e-mail. “They love their devices and want to leave it at that.”

Even Daisey remains an Apple gadget fan. “I'm a cyborg,” he said, “and I'm tethered to my devices.”

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of the New York Times.

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