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April 02, 2012

Mike Daisey Returns to the Stage in Burlington

Daisey4An anecdote in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," the monologue about Apple by Mike Daisey, took on a new resonance on Saturday night. It's the part in which Daisey is in China, planning out his visit to a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen where electronics are built for Apple and other electronics companies. Daisey tells his translator that he's not a businessman — he just plans to pose as one to get into the factory. The translator, Cathy, asks him if he's going to lie. Daisey reples, "Yes, Cathy. I'm going to lie to lots of people."

When Daisey spoke that line at the Flynn Center during his performance, it seemed to hang in the air a little. Not as long as the painfully drawn-out pauses when Ira Glass was eviscerating him on "This American Life," but long enough to let it sink in. I heard a couple audience members chuckle under their breath.

Saturday night marked Daisey's second "Agony and Ecstasy" performance since "This American Life" busted him for inventing and embellishing some details about his trip to Apple's Chinese factories in his ostensibly nonfiction monologue. It was his first in a couple of weeks, since the scandal began to cool down and Daisey had a chance to rethink and rework parts of the monologue.

Sure enough, there were some differences: The guards at the factory gates didn't have guns. Daisey didn't meet a 12-year-old worker. He did not claim that someone saw his iPad turn on and called it "a kind of magic." Daisey did still say that his taxicab came to a stop at a highway exit that ended in midair.

Somewhat surprisingly, Daisey did not address the controversy directly in his monologue. It wasn't until after the show, during a Q&A with Flynn Center executive director John Killacky and UVM Lane Series director Natalie Neuert, that the scandal actually came up — and even then, no one simply said, "Mike got in trouble a few weeks back because he said untrue things on 'This American Life' and Ira Glass really didn't take kindly to it."

It felt a little odd — Daisey frequently breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly in his monologue, so, all things considered, I was expecting a prologue or some other mention of the brouhaha. It never came. Maybe that's all right. Daisey did take out the objectionable pieces of the monologue, so what more should we expect him to do?

And how many people in the audience — people who don't religiously listen to public radio or read the rants of professional media critics — had no idea there even was a shitstorm brewing over the past couple of weeks?

One defense Daisey has offered is that his work comes across differently in the context of journalism. This turned out to be true. The excerpt of "Agony and Ecstasy" featured on "This American Life" was a small part of Daisey's monologue. If you listen to his story about visiting China, it does sound like "journalism." But in the 90-minute-plus theatrical monologue, it's a slice of a larger work with multiple storylines — some more journalistic than others — that intertwine throughout the show.

Exaggeration happens in other parts of the piece, too — unless American business execs really do talk like Chewbacca and tech journalists really do derive sexual pleasure from Apple keynotes. (Maybe those aren't too farfetched.) But these moments of exaggeration and embellishment happen in the context of comedy, where they're excusable and perhaps necessary. But not when you're tugging your audience's heartstrings.

Those other parts of the show also endear Daisey to the audience — at least to those of us who attend as geeks and not necessarily as theater lovers. Who hasn't freaked over an Apple event that effectively relegates one of our devices to the annals of history? Or rushed out to buy a new-and-improved thing even when we're not quite sure what the improvement is? Daisey's work has been praised for exposing the conditions in overseas factories, but this part of the show seems equally important. The cycle of upgrades, trade-ins and new releases is our reality — and it's hard to see past it when you're in it. The tech blogs don't address it, not when there's a mockup of a new iPhone to speculate over.

Daisey's monologue is art, and memoir. It may not be journalism, yet it exposes truths in its own way.

I'd been thinking a lot about the Daisey affair in the time between my interview with him and Saturday night's show. I had a weird epiphany late last week that this controversy proved Daisey's thesis, in a sense. More than anything, he wants us to think about where our laptops and tablets and smartphones come from — because we never do. That's why people were so angry at Daisey for his offenses to the truth. He went there, to the factories. We put our trust in him to be the guy who knew, who saw the places where our devices came from. And it turned out to be a little bit false. But if we did know the origins of our devices, we wouldn't have been troubled about Daisey's "truthiness" — because we wouldn't need him to tell us what's going on.

It feels strange to talk about this in Vermont. We like to think of ourselves as mindful. We take pride in knowing where our food comes from. That's the way things should be. But why stop at food? Most of us spend more time using various electronic devices than we do eating. Why can't we extend the know-the-source mentality to everything else?

Even in an ideal world, it's hard to imagine our laptops and phones being made locally. (Localvore computing?) We'll probably never meet the person who built our computer, the way we meet the farmer who grew our vegetables. Maybe that's OK. But no matter what you think of Daisey, he's right that we should know more than "Made in China."

A final note: Two days before this performance, a new report confirmed that Foxconn, which operates the factories for Apple and most other electronics manufacturers in Asia, should improve working conditions in its factories. In response, Foxconn and Apple pledged to raise wages and reduce workers' hours. But Daisey and others have pointed out we've been down this road before: Apple promises to fix what it had insisted wasn't a problem, then the story drops out of the news cycle and nothing substantive actually happens.

No matter what Daisey said or didn't say, it's true that our devices are made under conditions that would not be acceptable in the United States and other developed countries. That's finally getting more coverage — in part, ironically, because of Daisey's lies.

Will things change this time? Or will everyone forget again?

Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus from a Daisey performance at the Public Theater in New York.

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