Mike Daisey – The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and the limits of truth

By | Sunday, March 18, 2012 Leave a Comment

Last February I went to see a performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs by Mike Daisey at the Berkeley Reparatory Theater in Berkeley, CA. I had gone to see the play at the strong recommendation of my friends “Dick” and “Jane.” [Their real names? Hardly. Do you think I actually know a couple named “Dick and Jane”?] Jane had seen the performance with some of her friends and was so moved that she insisted Dick go to see it too. Dick invited me to join him – both because we are friends and because of my tech background. I haven't been to much live theater in recent years, but my favorite type of theater is monologues – notably Spaulding Grey and Dawson Nichols, and also the story telling of performers such as Laurie Anderson and Ivan Coyote. The combination of a monologue-performance, techie subject matter, and the opportunity to spend time with my friend Dick, made me readily accept the invitation.

I recall finding the first 15 minutes of the show rather hard to take. Daisey does a lot of shouting in this performance. I found myself feeling... um... shouted at. However, Daisey’s speaking rhythm became hypnotic and the story he was telling was mesmerizing. I was spellbound and transported during the performance. I stayed with him even through points when he was talking about historical tech events where I was present, such as the amazing work done at Xerox PARC developing the Altos computer in the early 1980’s. [Note: I did not work at Xerox PARC and had no involvement creating the Altos. However, I was close friends with two people who did, and I was a guest there on several occasions and had the opportunity to “play” with those early GUI machines.] At the end of the show the audience gave Mike Daisey a standing ovation – I am sure I was one of the first on my feet.

When I got home I immediately checked on the availability of tickets for either The Agony and The Ecstasy or The Last Cargo Cult (another play he was performing at the Rep.) Both were sold out. Oh well. I “friended” Mike on Facebook. I searched for videos of him on YouTube and watched all that I found, including interviews with him about several plays including this one, promotional material, and other short pieces he had done. I also checked his performance schedule for the rest of the country and contacted friends of mine living in his upcoming cities - vigorously recommending that they go to see this show.

The only person that took me up on the suggestion was my cousin in Washington D.C. He went with his wife, several friends, and his brother-in-law, “Fred”, who has been a computer magazine journalist for 20+ years. My cousin, his wife, and his friends were all deeply moved by the show. Fred wasn’t. He said that the story was full of holes. He had been to China and was familiar with Foxconn and the other players there. He wasn’t buying it.

Now I should mention that since marrying another of my cousins, Fred has become a friend of mine. [My cousin in DC is the eldest of my father’s brother’s three children. The youngest of the three is the same age as I am, and she married Fred. Thus, Fred is the brother-in-law of my DC cousin and my cousin-in-law. He is approximately my age.] I have always liked Fred and found him bright and interesting. I’ve also enjoyed many geek-talk conversations with him as a pleasant respite at family functions.

With that in mind, I have to admit that when I heard of Fred’s reaction to the play, I didn’t believe him. I didn’t believe my own personal friend and family-in-law. Daisey’s performance had been so compelling that I bought it hook, line and sinker.

One thing that Mike Daisy did that helped me disbelieve my own credible source is that he had thrown in what I call a “disbelief antidote.” He stated and implied, both during the play and in subsequent interviews, that going through ordinary journalistic channels he hadn’t been able to learn any more than the standard party line. But by going there himself, in person, not as a journalist, not through standard channels, using subterfuge and back-channels, he had learned the true story.

What an appealing notion! In the 1970’s a room full of White House reporters learned nothing of the Nixon administration’s “dirty tricks,” but Woodward and Bernstein found their “deep throat” and uncovered the truth. The Iran-Contra affair went on for years until it was exposed by an Iranian in a Lebanese magazine. PBS’s Frontline goes undercover to deeply investigate stories that the 24-hour mainstream media doesn’t seem to have time to research. Mike Daisey, a private citizen, breaks the silence of the Chinese propaganda machine. A very appealing story-line, and one that allowed me to disregard the opinions of my own journalist cousin-in-law. Clearly Fred had been fed the same party line that Daisey had cleverly gotten past. Ha ha!

So it was quite disturbing to learn more than a year later that the NPR program “This American Life” had determined that large parts of Mike Daisey’s show were fabrications and others monumental exaggerations. In particular, the most compelling and moving parts of the story were fiction. But why do I care? I went to the theater to see a performance, not a lecture. Yes, I was deeply moved and entertained by the show. Why should I care about its veracity? Do I expect Fiddler on the Roof, or Star Wars, or Law & Order to be factually correct? Of course not. Why am I upset to learn that The Agony is actually creative non-fiction, or perhaps fictionalized history?

The answer to my disappointment lies entirely within the context of the performance. Most fiction in print, on TV, in movies and in theater is obviously fictional. Sometimes there is an annotation that it is “based on a true story,” or more dramatically “ripped from the day’s headlines.” Daisey made no such disclaimers for The Agony. In fact, he was quite clear in presenting it as autobiography – he went to China to find out the truth about how his iPhone was made, then came back and told the story. He made this clear both in the performance itself and in interviews before and afterwards. He went so far as to call on the audience to write to executives at Apple, insisting that Apple change their ways.

In the playbill for the performance at the Berkeley Rep. there was an interview with Daisey. Here is one significant question from that interview:

Do you consider your work a form of journalism?

Given the state of journalism today I don’t know if I should be slightly insulted. (Laughs.) No, I do actually. I think that journalism should be part of most art that we make. Because we should know what is happening in the world, we should know it in our bones and it should inform our work. I feel like the impulse in the theatre, and in many other art forms, is to distance ourselves from the concerns of the day in an attempt to then get an overview of life, but I think that’s a false dichotomy. I think that actually being cheek by jowl with life itself, with things that are actually happening, affords us an opportunity to have a specific dialogue that doesn’t exist otherwise. It lets us find these charged elements that can pull us along like a magnet and pull us somewhere where catharsis is possible. So I do think journalism is a huge part of it. Journalism has a fantastic framework to live up to: the attempt to actually transmit the truth even despite all the difficulties inherent to that undertaking. I find it very inspiring. A lot of my heroes are journalists.

I have seen other monologues where the question of truth is irrelevant. I was fortunate to see Spaulding Grey perform several times. Each of his performances was presented as autobiographical. But in interviews, he was clear that they were performances – stories from his life, yes, but embellished and crafted to appeal to his audience. But even if he hadn’t fessed up to using creative license, why would I care? There is no consequence to Spaulding Grey fictionalizing his coming to grips with losing his vision to macular degeneration, or learning to ski, or performing in the movie The Killing Fields. He did not tell us a story and then ask the audience to go out and donate to macular degeneration research, or teach a child to ski. Ivan Coyote tells amazing stories about being a lesbian growing up in the Yukon. They’re great. They’re compelling. She takes the audience to the Yukon with her and shows us what it is like to grow up different. If it were to turn out that Ivan Coyote is actually heterosexual man from Hawaii, who cares? The stories told by Coyote don’t need to be true.

But Daisey framed his work as non-fiction. Autobiography. Journalism – and important journalism at that! The Agony was presented as an entertaining way to get across a major message about human rights violations in Chinese factories. So we all focused our attention on Chinese factories, looking to ferret out the evil that Daisey had uncovered. Finding out that the amount of abuse was wildly exaggerated, and reportage fictional, is a huge blow. It is especially problematic in a world where other human rights violations really are going on! Right now, today, children are bought, sold, and stolen in West and Central Africa work as slaves in the cocoa plantations of the Ivory Coast (no joke!)

So I am saddened. I feel tricked. Yes, I got my money’s worth from my ticket to see The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs; It was engrossing and entertaining. A wonderful performance. A tour de force. I just wish Daisey had been upfront that it was a work of fiction “based on a true story,” and was presented for entertainment, not education.
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