Do You Use Technology? Then Don't Miss Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.

09.10.10
Mike Daisey
Portland Mercury

By Erik Henriksen

I have a hard time imagining Mike Daisey's The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs won't be one of the best shows at TBA this year, if not the best show. I know this TBA's still young, and that there'll be plenty of good, even great stuff to come—but goddamn. I've three or four performances of Daisey's over the past few years, and this is handily the best—the most powerful, relevant, funniest, and harrowing. This is a show that, if you let it, has the power to change the way you think—a show that can alter the ways you use and consider the fundamental communication devices of our time.

Daisey's monologue is split into two interlocking halves: For part of The Agony and the Ecstasy, he outlines the history of Apple—in other words, the history of mad scientist Steve Jobs. Daisey knows of what he speaks; he only has one hobby, he says, and it is technology, "and of all the kinds of technology I have loved, I have loved Apple the most." "There is a relentless march into the future," Daisey says, "heralded by Steve Jobs and his fabulous keynotes." Meanwhile, in the monologue's other half, Daisey outlines some history of his own: A trip to China, made after he purchased his iPad, to visit the places where most of our technology, including the stuff we buy from Jobs, comes from—and to visit the people who make it, who work in factories the size of cities and some of whom are 13, 12, 11 years old. "There's a city on the other side of the world where all your shit comes from, and you don't know the name of it," Daisey notes, and then he describes it: It's a place, he says, that "looks like Blade Runner threw up on itself."

Before you write off Daisey as either an Apple fanboy or a preachy Luddite, keep in mind how fucking smart and how fucking funny this guy is. (If you haven't seen him before, this is how smart and this is how funny: very.) Daisey has very specific thoughts, here, and he has very definite points he wants to make—but The Agony and the Ecstasy is balanced, sharp, and entertaining as hell. (It's not often I use the word "riveting" to refer to anything even remotely related to theater, performance art, or some guy talking/shouting at you for two hours, but it's totally applicable here.) While most statements about Apple, technology, or globalism have a tendency to come screaming at you from one side or the other, loud and indignant, Daisey's words come from passionate experience, and what he offers the audience is jarringly insightful. As intense and heartbreaking as Daisey's visit to China is, he doesn't presume that we don't already know exactly what he's going to tell us. Unlike most, though, he's willing to point out that we just don't like to think about where our iPhones and Droids come from, even as we use them countless times each day. (Apple doesn't get off the hook, either: "Do you really think they don't know?" Daisey asks, after noting how factories rig inspections to hide their workers and the conditions they toil in. Of course a company as obsessively detail-oriented as Apple knows; they just do the same thing the rest of us do, which is not think about it, because the truth is really goddamn ugly.)

Daisey's trip to industrial China contains much of the power of The Agony and the Ecstasy, but his history of Apple—sprinkled with righteous, hilarious rants about the myriad failures of PowerPoint, Comic Sans, and the Apple Newton—is equally fascinating. From the Apple II to the revolution of OS X, Daisey's geek cred enables him to tell the story of Apple's epic rise (and epic fall, and second epic rise) with humor and relevance, focusing on the human drama and how that drama has affected all of us. "Operating systems are religions," Daisey points out—we choose one, we learn its intricacies, we accept the ways in which it shapes our worldview, and, ultimately, we leave it for another if we find one more to our liking. And all of this—from the heft of Apple's gorgeous industrial design to the way Jobs-approved app icons swoosh onto our screens—affects us, over and over, every day. What we choose to do with our technology—and how we choose to consider its origins and repercussions—doesn't just affect what OS we use or what we retweet. "The future already happened," Daisey notes, reminding us just how remarkable our computers and phones are—which makes it all the more important for us to understand how they came about in our past, and how these things are made and used in our present. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs will make you think about these things, and it will make you laugh, and when the lights come up afterward and you check for new text messages, your phone will look entirely different to you than it did a few hours before.