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Review: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Last night, I attended the Seattle Repertory Theatre’s performance of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, a one-man monologue written and performed by Mike Daisey.

Go see this show. It’s like watching Lewis Black narrate the adventures of Michael Moore in the setting of a Cory Doctorow novel. It’s a comedy. It’s a call to action. It’s a firestorm.

Contrary to what the title might imply, the subject of this performance (because while it is very playful, I hesitate to call it a “play”) is not Steve Jobs. Daisey is not playing Jobs. Instead he’s weaving a hell of a yarn, alternating between the history of Apple’s rise and fall and return, and the memoir of his own conversion experience from a stereotypical early-adopting Apple fanboy to a more mindful consumer who sees the ethical implications of his purchasing decisions. For Daisey, this seeing involves going to Shenzhen’s Special Economic Zone and meeting the 12- and 13- and 14-year-olds who make iPhones and iPads for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, 51 weeks a year.

I’ve written about Shenzhen before, but Daisey’s performance highlights the paucity of knowledge that most Westerners (including myself) have about the region and what goes on inside it. That ignorance is willing, even enjoyable, and the intellectual and ethical laziness that supports it is the same laziness that allows Apple wall their users into a garden wherein the operating system itself is a great mystery akin to transubstantiation.

This is the larger point of Daisey’s performance: an exponential extension of the motto “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it,” to the economic, political and personal levels. That little aphorism is not just about taking off your socks, popping open your case, and ripping out your dead power supply. It’s not just about knowing where the .dll files are. It’s about knowing what’s wrong and having the power to change it — in your relationships to yourself, your government, your world. Daisey puts it all together in ninety minutes with hilarity and humanity fueled by a ferocious energy and almost evangelical zeal. It’s part long-form joke, part rant, part memoir. Above all it is a performance of those things, rather than a play-acted version of any of them.

If you can, go see it. And thanks, Mr. Daisey. Sorry about my laugh — now you know why they call me “Squeak.”