Like any addict in recovery, Mike Daisey has learned that admitting the sin upfront is the crucial first step. And thus, seated behind a table at the Public Theater, he spits it out as if a 31/2-inch floppy disk were stuck in his digestive tract: "I am a worshipper," he says, as if making his first declaration at Alcoholics Anonymous, "in the House of Mac."
We fellow addicts already suspected as much. There was, after all, the title of his solo show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," begun before the demise of the oracle of the House of Mac turned the turtlenecked Jobs into something between an obsessively revered global icon and a dysfunctional personification of our complex feelings about technology, communication, art and consumption. What with the candles outside the Apple stores, the Walter Isaacson biography, the revelations of familial complexity and of toughness on employees, the manipulation of demand, supply and heaven knows what else in the chain, the Jobs legacy seems to have been forming, melting, upgrading, downgrading and generally shape-shifting even more quickly than Jobs himself could ever have profitably conceived.
Jobs' death has, without question, helped Daisey and is a big part of why his monologue, which is highly critical of several crucial aspects of the Jobs legacy, is packing the Public Theater. The theater, meanwhile, keeps announcing extensions, and the whole Jobs affair seems likely to propel Daisey, Spalding Gray's most obvious heir apparent, to a different level of popularity. What Jobs meant — and how good or bad that meaning was — is an obsession that seemed to come from nowhere, but actually was the result of exactly the same pent-up demand that Jobs exploited with such singular brilliance when hawking the latest iPhone.
In his key moment of personal revelation — the Mac-obsessive equivalent of hitting bottom — Daisey describes how a computer that once seemed perfectly adequate for all his needs, real and imagined, suddenly seemed slow, sluggish and depressing. So what had happened? Had the Daisey creative chain changed in some way? No. Jobs had brought out an upgrade. That was all it took; crippling inadequacy was conferred on the contents of the computer room. "And then," Daisey says, impishly, "I started to think. And that's always a problem for any religion."
It is that keen, deeply informed awareness of the essential Jobs paradox — in itself, merely an intensification of the semiguilty paradox lived by all worshipers at the House of Mac — that makes this such a remarkable show. Especially when the chief prosecutor admits he is complicit.
But before Daisey gets to the hamartia of his man, he details the depth of his Apple obsession, even through the trying years. "It has been difficult at times to keep the faith," he says. "In the late 1990s, I did sleep with the Windows system. Who didn't?"
Well, not me. Not unless it was a forced encounter precipitated by an unimaginative employer. In my first year of graduate school, I lusted as a (richer) fellow student unboxed a "Fat Mac." I tried and failed to find enough cash for a Mac Plus, but eventually dropped five months' rent on an open-box Mac 512Ke, upon which I wrote, and (thanks to many crashes) rewrote, my dissertation, all the time livid at how people thought I had a 512K, without the crucial "e." For "enhanced." I dropped more of my teaching assistant stipend on an SE/30, and then, well, you get the idea. So it has gone for me through Classics, Performas and PowerBooks, costly and confounding incompatibilities be damned: I even owned the infamous PowerBook 5300, a model through which flames were famously seen to shoot. And I write now on an iMac that, if it only were the latest model, would make my writing better.
That's one of Daisey's key takeaways: Jobs' genius was in the fostering of an upgrade need that is not actually a need but a fetishistic desire for conspicuous consumption, fueled by personal inadequacy. But Daisey's main point in this two-hour show (directed by Jean-Michele Gregory) is that Jobs — his astonishing ability to link brilliantly designed technology to human need notwithstanding — had one major moral failing: He did not pay attention to the deplorable conditions in which his gizmos were made.
And thus Daisey recounts his gonzo-journalistic trek to Shenzhen, China, to the factories of the contract manufacturer Foxconn, the largest maker in the world of electronic components, and a place where more than 400,000 workers currently put together iPhones, iPads and some of the other stuff bulging in American pockets and backpacks. Daisey's tales of worker abuse aren't new information — a fact he openly admits. But except for the last few minutes, when the didactic desires of his show overwhelm the balance of its aesthetics, "Agony and Ecstasy" brilliantly tells of working conditions on a twin-narrative track alongside the storyteller's loving, deeply admiring history of Jobs: how Jobs, and only Jobs, fused quotidian tools and beauteous creativity and came to understand, like no geek before, that he who controls the metaphor though which people see the world can become the world itself.
No wonder we loved Jobs. He ignored workplace conditions at a subcontractor, Daisey deftly alleges, because that's what we wanted. We just wanted the latest cool stuff; it was expensive enough already.
"The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is performed at New York's Public Theater through Dec. 4. Tickets are $75-$85. Call 212-967-7555 or visit publictheater.org.
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