Mike Daisey on truth, theater and the scandal surrounding his show
Monologuist Mike Daisey  admits he was obsessed with his technology. But after seeing a rare photo from inside a Chinese factory where Apple products are made, he decided he had to see for himself — so he took a trip to China in 2010. That trip formed the basis of Daisey’s one-man show, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which explores the links among the late Apple cofounder, industrial design and the harsh, often dangerous conditions for the workers who manufacture Apple products.
The attention surrounding the show peaked in January 2012, when parts of the monologue focusing on Daisey’s trip to the factories were excerpted on “This American Life.” The episode became the most downloaded podcast in the public radio program’s history. But two months later, the show retracted the episode  after another radio journalist reported that Daisey had fabricated a number of details about his trip to China, including a meeting with a worker who was chemically poisoned, and a scene in which a worker injured in a factory sees an iPad turn on for the first time.
In “This American Life”’s retraction episode, and at a talk at Georgetown University  a day later, Daisey admitted some embellishments and fabrications and apologized for allowing his theatrical work to be presented on a journalistic radio program. But Daisey also defended his work, claiming that theater is held to a different standard than journalism, and that the “greater truth” of the piece remained intact. Indeed, outlets including the New York Times  and Wired magazine  have published articles about working conditions in Apple’s overseas factories in recent months.
Despite the storm of criticism surrounding him, Daisey is pressing on with performances of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs — albeit with changes in the wake of the recent controversy. Daisey sounded contrite and reflective when Seven Days spoke to him via Skype in advance of his show at the Flynn Center this Saturday . What follows is a transcript of the talk, edited for clarity and space constraints.
SEVEN DAYS: You’re presenting [The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs] here in Burlington next week. How is it going to be different than the way you performed it before “This American Life”’s retraction story?
MIKE DAISEY: I’m a big believer in context. I think that it’s going to be very different in terms of how it lands in the room...
I don’t know the specifics this moment of how that’ll work itself out. I’m starting to think about that... But I know that what I present will be very straight with the audience and will recognize all the things that have been going on.
SD: Your monologue has changed over time since you starting giving it a year and a half, two years ago. And it seems that some of the changes in it have come about because you’ve talked about it with journalists in interviews, such as this one.
MD: Yes, I think that’s true. And also, they’ve all always changed organically. The way people tell stories anywhere, they’ve all always evolved. There are certain points at which it’s really clear — for instance, after the death of Steve Jobs there was a large shift, and then after the New York Times feature ran, that altered the landscape of some of the things that were in the monologue because ... there was a large section where I talked about why these stories don’t get covered, and then of course the Times story broke, which was fantastic, but it was unnecessary to talk about those things. But there are smaller changes that happen all the time, just like they would in any oral performance.
SD: Do you think that difference [between theater and journalism] has always been clear to your audiences? I’m asking this because I read that your playbills often said that you presented this as a work of nonfiction .
MD: You know, it really varies. I regret that I put that in the programs. But the context of it has to be understood. We actually used it because we had the opposite problem — for a couple of years we didn’t have anything in the programs indicating what the work was. We actually put it in for the opposite reason, which is that very often, when people see the shows... people will talk to me and ask me whether anything was real. It’s sort of the inverse of the relationship in journalism. Instead of everything being true, the assumption is that everything is false, including the fact that I am not the person speaking, I am perhaps an actor embodying a script from a playwright... That’s why that tag was there in the program. It was the only purpose of it, actually.
I’m well aware of what nonfiction means in the world of publishing, and I would never have said that my work is straight nonfiction, because it has always worked with things like changing timelines [and] moving events. It has always been in the realm of memoir... So yeah, I really regret that that was in those playbills.
I don’t feel like people in the room watching it, given the theatricality of it, I don’t know that it was as much of a problem as it was when I put it on “This American Life.” That excerpt is just this journey to China, whereas the whole show has this very theatrical storyline about Steve Jobs. There’s a lot of structured hyperbole. I think it feels very differently when it’s performed orally in a theater. I think it changes the context. So I never felt it was as wrong then. Looking at it now, like anything when your context changes, I’m much more sensitive to it. We definitely won’t be putting it in the program in the future.
SD: You’ve said that you have to dramatize this work in order to keep this in the public eye and to be a story that people are paying attention to. Is there some reason that a journalistic view doesn’t connect with people, and that’s why this story wasn’t really in the public eye until this year?
MD: Well, I don’t know. It’s an interesting question: What is it that makes the public grab attention? What is it that makes people care? I know that the thing that drew me to this part of the story was reading reports from SACOM [Students & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour] and other NGOs, after, as I describe in the monologue, I saw those pictures. And [I was] feeling this massive disconnect between where I was sitting and what I was reading about... The reports are not terribly dramatic.
I know I have a lot of journalist friends -- I still do. It’s been really nice this week, some have really let me know that they’ll still drink with me [and] talk to me. The journalist friends I have are very used to this pattern — the pattern of working really hard on a story, doing incredibly hard journalism, showing the facts, having it out there, and the story just dies. Like, it doesn’t go anywhere, it doesn’t grab traction. For one reason or another, the news cycle is looking in a different direction.
The thing about theater that journalism can’t do is that theater is a sustained artistic effort. I was able to perform the monologue in multiple cities month after month after month... And in each city, the arts coverage would lead to harder journalists in different areas coming to see the show or talking about the show. And while it might not have been as huge as what we saw with “This American Life,” all that effort really led to a lot of people who are in positions to figure out how they feel about these things to start to look at the problem. I think there’s something to be said for that.
I know that my behavior may not have been perfect, but I do believe in the junction between journalism and art. I just think perhaps I was unwise in crossing directly over the line. And I think art about things can totally lay an emotional groundwork that hard journalism then supports. I’m so grateful that the New York Times and other people have gone out and done that work. I think it’s fantastic.
SD: If you’re going to do another monologue that involves lots of research and investigation like this one, having been through what you’ve been through now, what would you do differently?
MD: Isn’t that a great question? I don’t know yet. I’ve got a couple of monologues ahead, and it’s interesting because they’re different.
Different monologues call for different things... They’re all sort of half built in my mind, at least the things that might be investigated. There’s some that are more personal and reflective, and I probably [wouldn’t] do much differently. But there are some that are much closer to journalism -- closer, anyway. I don’t want to get into trouble and say they are. They’re not journalism, we’re all clear!
But, yeah, I think that I will probably adopt the tools of journalism. That is to say, I think I might have a notebook! I think I might have an audio recorder. I think I’ll take more pictures. And so I’ll have these reference points so that I can return to them and know what’s going on.
The thing in the monologue that is very sincere — there are many things that are sincere — but the sense in the monologue that I am a person out of my depth, going to a place to try to basically pretend to be what I imagine somebody investigating something would do... [that] is very accurate. I think that even if this hadn’t happened in this public way, I had already figured out after the fact, now, that I would do things differently.
SD: Even before you went on “This American Life,” I was wondering if you had ever seen this coming, or if you had ever anticipated that some of the not-100-percent-true-type things would become an issue for you and how your monologue was perceived going down the road. Did that ever occur to you?
MD: That’s a difficult question because... there’s a conscious and there’s a subconscious part to this when you tell a story over and over and over again. And so I definitely think there was a sense of unease in me, especially because I was so driven by this particular monologue. I was so driven especially as I started doing more and more interviews about it and talking about the stories outside the theater in a way that I really had never done for any other work. I definitely felt this growing... disconnection inside myself from the work. Which I don’t normally have. So it’s not as clear-cut as simply saying that I thought about it consciously all the time. We’re really clever animals, human beings. We’re far too clever for our own good.
But... on the level that counts, the human level, I think I knew inside myself that there was really a problem and that it really drifted away from where it should have been. My hope is that, in the work that I create following this, that I will learn from it. They say you learn from adversity. I would say after the last couple of days -- weeks, actually -- that’s true. The question will be, will I have an opportunity to display what I have learned? And that really depends on the grace of audiences and whether they choose to hear me or not. And that I can’t predict, but I only know I can do the best that I can and I’ll endeavor to do that.
SD: You allude to it at the beginning [of the monologue] that there is this cult of Mac, so I was wondering how your Apple fanboys have reacted to the things that you present in your monologue that don’t always portray Apple in the best light?
MD: Oh, they’ve always responded very poorly to that. They’ve always hated that part of my monologue — or the whole monologue usually, generally without seeing it... And you’re going to see that with any religion. [laughter]
And I still love the devices, I still think they’re fantastic computers, [but] I have a lot of issues with how locked down Apple’s platform is. I think Lion sucks. I have a lot of problems with what’s going on in terms of the app ecosystem and I think things are really locked down and getting more locked down, and I think... outside of manufacturing, our love affair with Apple is actually very bad for us as users. I think that we start to see ourselves as consumers instead of users, and then the devices get more and more locked down, and I think it’s a real problem. But I still do think they make beautiful devices, and a lot of their aesthetics are fantastic.
One of the things that I like about the monologue in its full form is how it is both the agony and the ecstasy. The beauty of the devices and how wonderful they are exists hand-in-hand and side-by-side with how they are made. Which is how it should be with any device, shouldn’t it? We should care about how they’re made and then we should care about what they do and what they mean in our lives. It’s just that we live in this crazy world where we’ve become so divorced from where our things come from that we don’t think about that anymore.
SD: That’s another thing I wanted to ask: How is your relationship with Apple and their products since you started working on this?
MD: The biggest change is that I haven’t bought anything new since I got back from Shenzhen. Which means I am slowly going obsolete. [laughter]
It’s hard because I used to be on the cutting edge, although I have to say — this is really true — beyond all the other reasons that someone might slow down their technology purchases, beyond all the ethical implications of how the devices are made, I have to say my devices are much more stable and useful than they were before. Because I lived on the bleeding edge, so I always had some beta version of my browser combined with dodgy plugins and some weird thing installed. I had everything kitted out to some ridiculous degree... What I do instead is I use my computer as a tool instead of being used by it. And I actually get a lot more shit done.
In addition to having these sort of ethical implications, I actually think I just have a better life since I stopped thinking about my technology constantly.
SD: Do you have any ideas on if there’s a limit to the amount of poetic license before you call it fictional? Or is all a completely gray area?
MD: That is a great question. I think it’s very gray in the classic sense. Every human being needs to figure out these rules for themselves. The problem is... we all communicate with each other, so we start trying to come up with group definitions where we all decide that this is what one thing means called “journalism,” and this is this other thing...
I actually think all stories are fiction. I think every story anyone tells is a fiction. But I also believe in the truth. So I believe that journalism — straight, strict journalism‚ is this very high calling of trying to express a truth, even though what it’s made of is stories, which are fiction. Every story is subjective because we perceive it differently, but I don’t disbelieve in reality, I think it’s just very, very difficult for us to perceive it.
And I think it’s actually a little infantile when we sort of pretend that there is some objective truth that we’re all able to capture and put our hands around. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important, though. It’s absolutely vital. When my work is at its best, I hope that it lives up to that standard, and when it falls short, I need to admit that, talk about it openly, and then I need to try harder, and that’s pretty much where I’m sitting on that issue. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been lambasted on the internet a lot for all the reasons that have gone down.
Some people are especially angry because I keep talking about how I believe in the truth, because, how dare I say that? But I have to say it because it’s true. It doesn’t mean that I did a great job all the time, but that’s where my allegiance is. Not all artists believe that. Some believe that everything is up for grabs and we live an utterly subjective universe and that I should say anything I want and so should everyone else. I don’t think that’s true. I think we live in a shared universe and we need to try to respect those boundaries, and when people fail, they need to own up to it, they need to try to make amends, and they need to be clear about what they’re going to do and try to do it well.
Mike Daisey performs "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at the Flynn MainStage  on Saturday, March 31.