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The Show Must Go On: The Case of Mike Daisey and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

This American Life, a weekly public radio show, featured a podcast on January 6 from Mike Daisey’s highly acclaimed Off-Broadway show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Ira Glass hosted the podcast. Mike Daisey is a self-proclaimed Apple worshipper. He is obsessed with technology products, and he is particularly obsessed with Apple’s technology products. One of the main questions that Daisey addresses in his show is where do all of these technology products come from? Who actually physically makes them? To answer these questions, Daisey took a trip to Shenzhen, China to talk to factory workers at the Foxconn plant. During his time in China, he also posed as a businessman to receive private tours of the factories. Daisey then came home, wrote his play, and delivers his monologue across the country by giving his audience a dramatic account of what he learned and what he saw. Daisey was positively reviewed not only for the content of his story, but also the way he tells his story. He delivers the monologue in a powerful and dramatic way. Even Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, was reached by email after seeing the show and commented: “I will never be the same after seeing that show” (Carstensen). The excerpt on This American Life received 888,000 downloads, which was the most in the history of the show (Stanglin). After Daisey released the script of his show to public, over 60,000 people downloaded it in just a couple of days (Rao).

            Despite the show’s immense impact and popularity, a public scandal has erupted centered on the validity of Daisey’s accounts. He did go to Shenzhen. He did have a translator named Cathy. He did go to the Foxconn plant. He did talk to factory workers who make Apple products. The suicide nets surrounding the plant that he saw are real. The pictures taken inside a factory that first prompted Daisey to go to China are real. The people in those pictures are real. The people who make the cell phones and laptops we touch endlessly throughout the day are real. However, Daisey exaggerated the truth about numerous interactions he may or may not have had. These lies are the heart of the controversy.

            As a result of the controversy, This American Life retracted Mike Daisey’s excerpt from their show in March.

Ira Glass hosted a follow-up show discussing why they were making the retraction and what fabrications existed in Daisey’s work. It came to the attention of Glass that Daisey was lying through a man named Rob Schmitz. Schmitz lives in Shanghai, and is the China correspondent for a public radio show called Marketplace (Glass). When he first heard Daisey’s story, he had suspicions about it. As a result, Schmitz tracked down Daisey’s translator to dig up the truth. Cathy did not know that Daisey’s intention in visiting Shenzhen was to write a play. She also did not know that she was a central part of his play. Schmitz had Cathy listen to the podcast of the show. After listening, Cathy commented: “You know, I listened to the radio of Mike Daisey. I think it’s OK he writes things. But some of them he writes are true. Some of them he writes are not true. But he’s not telling the whole truth” (Glass). Cathy reported that numerous details in the play are exaggerated. For example, the guards at the Foxconn plant do not have guns. Daisey says they visited 10 factories, Cathy says they visited 3. Daisey’s show makes it seem that he visited the Foxconn plant and then decided to pose as a businessman. According to Cathy, this arrangement was set up in advance.

            The fabrication that has caught the most media attention is Daisey’s portrayal of child labor in the Foxconn factory. Cathy does not remember meeting any underage workers. Cathy said to Schmitz: “I think if she said she was 13 or 12, then I would be surprised. I would be very surprised. Then I’d be remembering for sure. But there is no such thing” (Glass). Schmitz continues by commenting on this topic, “She’d be surprised because, she says, in the 10 years she’s visited factories in Shenzhen, she’s hardly ever seen underage workers” (Glass). However, Daisey still holds that he spoke to one girl who specifically told him that she was 13. She was with a group of friends and while he never learned their exact ages, they looked young to him as well. In the retraction interview, Daisey and Glass go back and forth on this subject:

Ira Glass: Mike, did somebody actually say they were 12? Or somebody said they were 13, and then you looked at the group, and you were just like, OK, maybe one’s 12?

Mike Daisey: Yes. One person said they were 13. The others were with her. And those were the friends that I talk about.

Ira Glass: But none of them said that they were 12, right. Like you have one who gave her age as 13. And then the others didn’t actually give their ages, but you’re just kind of guessing?

Mike Daisey: That’s correct. That’s accurate.

Daisey also did not meet anyone who was physically debilitated by N-hexane, a toxin found in iPhone cleaner. In his monologue, when Daisey talks about the chemical he says: “N-hexane is an iPhone screen cleaner. It’s great, because it evaporates a little bit faster than alcohol does, which means you can run the production line even faster and try and keep up with the quotas. The problem is that N-hexane is a potent neurtoxin. And all these people have been exposed. Their hands shake uncontrollably. Most of them can’t even pick up a glass” (Daisey 54). Cathy says that nobody he spoke to said they were poisoned by it, and nobody had shaking hands from it (Glass).

In response to Ira Glass’s retraction, Daisey issued the followings statement on his blog:

I stand by my work. My show is a theatrical piece whose goal is to create a human connection between our gorgeous devices and the brutal circumstances from which they emerge. It uses a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license to tell its story, and I believe it does so with integrity. Certainly, the comprehensive investigations undertaken by The New York Times and a number of labor rights groups to document conditions in electronics manufacturing would seem to bear this out. What I do is not journalism. The tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism. For this reason, I regret that I allowed THIS AMERICAN LIFE to air an excerpt from my monologue. THIS AMERICAN LIFE is essentially a journalistic – not a theatrical – enterprise, and as such it operates under a different set of rules and expectations. But this is my only regret. I am proud that my work seems to have sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling conditions under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China (Daisey).

I have personally listened to the original podcast of Daisey’s show, saw Daisey’s show, and learned of the lies shortly thereafter. When I first heard the podcast, I was mesmerized. I stayed up until 2 in the morning listening to the entire show. I pressed paused and rewind numerous times, listening over and over again to the portions of Daisey’s brilliant delivery that really caught my attention. I wrote a blog post about it for our class, and proceeded to send it, along with the link to Daisey’s podcast, to numerous friends, family members, and even a past professor. My email prompted much debate and discussion among everyone I sent it to. I became so interested in Daisey and his message that I convinced my parents to take me to see the show.  

            My family can’t seem to let go of the subject. When I first sent my father my blog, he wrote back and said, “Very insightful. Contract manufacturing – a trillion dollar business around the world – good or evil?” A few days later, he forwarded me a Wall Street Journal article about audits of Apple factories. He jokingly said, “I guess they read your blog.” When I emailed him a few days ago to tell him my Macbook charger had broken, he responded, “Probably Foxconn’s fault – used too many 14 years olds on the line.” Probably not the most PC thing to say, but that is not the point. The point of me telling you all of this is that before I listened to that podcast or saw the show, I never even thought about all of the issues that Daisey brought to my attention. My family had never discussed these things before. Yet here we are, almost 2 months from the first time I listened to the podcast, and it is still all we can talk about. I shared my personal experience to be living proof that within my family and social circle, Daisey’s work has undoubtedly “sparked a growing storm of attention and concern over the often appalling condition under which many of the high-tech products we love so much are assembled in China” (Daisey). I read an article in The Washington Post about all of the controversy. What struck me most was the title of the article: “Why Mike Daisey had to lie to tell the truth about Apple” (Topolosky). The lies that are detailed above are in fact lies. However, the overall message that Daisey is sending is truth. We all have iPhones, iPods, iPads, and Mac computers. Brand loyalty to Apple is incredibly strong. Yet we never really think about where these shiny, brilliant products come from. The truth is that they are handmade by factory workers in Shenzhen, China who are subject to questionable conditions. Most of us have never thought about these people before. However, Daisey’s play changed that.

There are various ethical approaches to assess Mike Daisey’s lies. I will specifically apply ethical theory to evaluate whether or not theatres around the country should continue holding Mike Daisey’s controversial show now that the lies have surfaced. A synthesis of the theory of utilitarianism and stakeholder theory offers valuable insight into the ethics of this case. At its most basic level, utilitarianism is the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In John Stuart Mill’s original work on utilitarianism, he wrote: “The creed which accepts as the foundation of moral, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness” (Mill 9). Stakeholder theory holds that a company must weigh the interests of all of its stakeholders in balance, as opposed to focusing on a select subset of them. A utilitarian and stakeholder approach to the question of continuing Mike Daisey’s performance would assert that the show should go on because of its viral, impactful, and value-adding influence on all of its stakeholders.

            Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, interested in the aftermath of an act as opposed to evaluating the ethics of the act itself. “It is consequentialist because it tells us that an act’s rightness or wrongness is determined solely by the act’s consequences and not by any feature of the act itself” (Snoeyenbos 17). The scathing criticisms that Daisey has received are isolating his decision to lie instead of looking at the broader picture – the effects that his lies have had. Personally, Daisey’s lies have had a profound influence on me. Daisey ends his performance by saying, “Tonight we are jailbroken. Tonight we are free” (Daisey 60). He refers to his story as a virus. He says:

It is inside of you, just like it’s inside of me, twisting and wriggling. And when these lights come up, when this theatrical construct falls away, it will still be in you. You will carry it out these doors, you will be vectors for it. You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see blood welling up between the keys. You will know that those were made by human hands. You will always know that…And you will live with it. Just as I live with it. Just as we’re all going to have to start seeing it if we’re going to make the shift (Daisey 60).

I still believe these words are true. And I believe the intended impact that Daisey articulated through these final words is still reverberating throughout society. My interactions with friends and family are evidence that The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is in fact a virus that is igniting change. In this case, the positive consequences of Daisey’s lies are more important to evaluate than the act of lying in the first place.

            A consequentialist and utilitarian analysis of these viral effects would undoubtedly conclude that Daisey’s show must go on. “An act is morally right if and only if it maximizes utility, if and only if the balance of benefit to harm calculated by taking everyone affected by the act into consideration is greater than the balance of benefit to harm resulting from any alternative act” (Snoeyenbos 17). The synthesis between the two theories is clear in this statement – the consequences of continuing Daisey’s show must be evaluated by examining the impact of Daisey’s show on all of its stakeholders. There are a number of stakeholders to Daisey’s performance – his audience, his translator, the Chinese workers, Apple, the theatres, and Mike Daisey himself. In Freeman’s article on stakeholder theory, he discussed “value-creation” for all stakeholders (Freeman 46). All of Daisey’s stakeholders will inherit value if his show continues. If theatres refuse to continue the show, a great deal of value will be lost for all of his stakeholders. For starters, let us look at Daisey’s audience. The audience members are Daisey’s consumers; they are the ones paying money to hear his story and see his performance. While the audience members who saw Daisey’s show before the lies came out were lied to beyond their will, this is no longer the case. If Daisey’s show continues, every person who buys a ticket is actively choosing, agreeing, and paying to be “lied to.” Furthermore, many journalistic sources give proof that audience members on the whole are not offended. Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the birthplace of the show, is moving forward with their scheduled return of the play. They hosted a 75-minute public forum with Mike Daisey and artistic director Howard Shalwitz. Daisey offered numerous apologies. However, the only solid applause line heard during the entire forum was after Shalwtiz remarked, “We shouldn’t be apologizing for the art that Mike Daisey is capable of” (Pressley). Clearly, this audience didn’t need to be hearing Daisey’s apologies.

            The stakeholders of the Chinese laborers are important to examine as well. It does not appear that anyone who spoke to Daisey in China was put in danger because of his or her involvement in his work. Even his translator, Cathy, approaches Daisey’s lies very neutrally. She says to Rob Schmitz, “He’s a writer. So I know what he says, maybe only half of them or less are true. He’s allowed to do that, right? Because he’s not a journalist” (Glass). That being said, bringing the issue of overworked and underpaid factory workers to the attention of thousands of American can do a great deal of good for these people. Value can only be created for this set of stakeholders if the audience members are still given access to Daisey’s enlightening revelations. Throughout his play, Daisey discusses the shift of the metaphor. He says, “When I leave the factories I can feel the metaphor shifting underneath me. I can feel myself being rewritten from the inside out; the way I see everything is starting to change” (Daisey 45). Daisey has begun to shift this metaphor not only for himself, but also for those who have seen and heard about his show. The first step to changing something is making the condition that needs to be changed well-known and inspiring anger about the situation. There has clearly been a correlation between the rise in popularity of Daisey’s show and the public scrutiny of Apple that had led to numerous audits of factories in the past few months. Within the past month, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) conducted “the most detailed public investigation yet into conditions at Foxconn factories in China” (Garside). Through this audit, approximately 50 findings were uncovered, which included violation of Apple’s code, the labor law, and FLA’s standards, in addition to identifiable areas of weakness in the factories (Garside). After this audit, Apple and Foxconn have vowed to raise the bar (Garside). Auret van Heerden, FLA president, predicts that a ripple will occur throughout the electronic sector where all factories will have to raise the bar in order to compete (Garside). In keeping with the language of Daisey, the metaphor is certainly starting to shift in a positive way for Chinese workers if van Heerden’s predictions are valid. It is impossible to say whether causation is at work in this scenario – I cannot factually say that Daisey’s show directly led to these audits. However, I think Daisey’s play did contribute in some way, whether it be directly or indirectly. Bringing these issues to the attention of the public puts pressure on Apple and puts pressure on the government. Daisey has contributed to this pressure, which has led to a safer and improved outlook for factory workers.

            The theatres where Daisey performs his show are also stakeholders in this situation. They are the ones who must make the decision whether or not to continue hosting Daisey’s performance. Because of the lies, theatres may be concerned that the integrity of their organization will be threatened if they continue Daisey’s show. However, positive audience reception seems to prove otherwise. After the lies surfaced, Daisey cut certain sections of his monologue and added a prologue to address the controversy. Even after the lies came out and critics started attacking, Daisey received a standing ovation at his final show at the Public Theatre in New York (Sandoval). The value added for the theatres is twofold. For one, these theatres are involved in show-business. They are running a theatre to make money, and audiences are still flocking to see Daisey live. Furthermore, theatres are facilitating the positive changes that are already starting to come about as a result of Daisey’s eye-opening monologue. For the moment, they may be labeled as a theater hosting a liar. However, if they allow Daisey to continue, I think the label that will soon dominate is that they are forums to changing the world. 

            The only stakeholder that is suffering to any extent is Daisey himself. He clearly brought this upon himself, but he has admitted to his dishonesty and made several public apologies for it. He stands by his work, and still believes in the impact it can have. Daisey’s work is simultaneously maximizing utility and creating value for all stakeholders. In Daisey’s play, he says, “Because in this age, when so much of our lives are mediated by technology, I say to you, if you control the metaphor through which people see the world, then you control the world itself (Daisey 12). Through The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey and his audience members are collectively controlling the metaphor – and this is a powerful role to possess. Daisey says, “And it is an amazing thing, to be there at the moment when that metaphor shifts” (Daisey 33). If theatres across the country continue hosting Daisey’s groundbreaking work, we all have the potential to be actively involved in shifting the metaphor by proactively changing the situation in China and the standard of labor practices across the globe.

Works Cited

Audit Finds Apple’s Chinese Factories in Violation of Employment Laws – Video. Perf. Auret Van

            Heerden. The Guardian. Reuters, 30 Mar. 2012. Web.

 Beyond Broadway: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Perf. Mike Daisey and Jean-Michele

            Gregory. Broadway.com. YouTube, 8 Feb. 2012. Web.

 Carstensen, Jeanne. “On Stage and Afterward, Spotlight on Apple in China.” The New York Times. 26 Feb. 2011. Web.

 Daisey, Mike. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. MS. Web.

Daisey, Mike. Web log post. Mike Daisey. 16 Mar. 2012. Web.

 Freeman, R. Edward. “Stakeholder Theory of the Modern Corporation.” 38-48. Web.

 Garside, Juliette. “Apple’s Factories in China Are Breaking Employment Laws, Audit Finds.” The Guardian. 29 Mar. 2012. Web.

 Glass, Ira, and Rob Schmitz. “Retraction.” This American Life. 16 Mar. 2012. Web. Transcript.

 Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1957. Print.

 Rao, Mallika. “Mike Daisey’s ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’ Script Tops 60,000 Downloads.” The Huffington Post. 28 Feb. 2012. Web.

 Sandoval, Greg. “Mike Daisey Gets Standing Ovation at Last N.Y. Performance.” CNET News. 18 Mar. 2012. Web.

 Snoeyenbos, Milton, and James Humber. “Utilitarianism and Business Ethics.” 17-29. Web.

Stanglin, Douglas. “‘This American Life’ Retracts Apple Factory Episode.” USA Today. 16 Mar. 2012.




One thought on “The Show Must Go On: The Case of Mike Daisey and The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

  1. What I learned from other sources was that some of his theatrical choices and then subsequent defense of his methods made the whole kerfuffle more damaging to his credibility. For example, the playbill called it a work of “non-fiction.” In the original show, I have not heard “Retraction” yet, he discusses his methods outside of the context of the performance. This discussion of method again conveys that we are meant to take this as an endeavor wholly motivated by truth-seeking. So one lesson I draw from the agony and ecstasy of Mike Daisey is that small choices matter when magnified under the scrutiny of the public eye.

    Ultimately, I agree with you. The impact of the general truth is tremendous. Whether the messenger is Mike Daisey or someone else, the message is clear and valuable: stuff is made somewhere, by someone and globalization should not drape a veil of blissful ignorance over the web of people whose hands touched every tool and gadget in your hands.

    Posted by Jordi | April 26, 2012, 6:24 am

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