IF MY PHONE CONVERSATION with Mike Daisey in December had been monitored by the FCC, half of it would have been bleeped out. Yet dropping the more-than-occasional F-bomb is an endearing trait of Daisey’s: an extension of his passion for life, its ironies and atrocities. In his unscripted monologues—delivered from behind a desk, with just a handwritten outline and glass of water at hand—he unleashes tirades on Amazon, the banking crisis, Scientology, the failure of theater in America, 9/11. His face reddens; sweat drips down his neck; he gesticulates like a symphony conductor. But mostly, he gets personal, telling self-deprecating stories about the self-proclaimed “chubby little man” sitting behind the desk.
Daisey, 38, draws on a range of experiences, going back to his childhood in a small town without a traffic light in the northernmost part of Maine. He moved to Seattle in the mid ’90s to “reinvent himself,” as many did, trying his luck in theater before taking a job in customer service at Amazon (“for the health insurance”). After a few years with the online retail giant, Daisey learned two things: He would never work for a corporation again, and the off-the-wall emails he sent to CEO Jeff Bezos (all unanswered) made great material.
After the success of his breakout performance 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com in 2001—including a book deal and his Letterman debut—Daisey relocated to New York City, but the Pacific Northwest left its mark, instilling in him a geek’s appreciation of gadgets. He will wax philosophical about the MacBook Air (“it has the strength of a netbook, but it’s beautifully miniaturized”), yet it makes him feel dirty to talk lovingly of Apple products—considering what he knows. In his latest one-man rant, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey exposes devastating details about the Foxconn iPhone 4 manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China, where he went undercover last year, posing as a prospective client. “iPhone 4s are all created by people who are paid abysmally, who work hideous hours under terrible conditions,” Daisey said of the experience. A 2010 Apple audit confirmed his allegations of underage labor; last month’s Wired magazine dedicated its cover to Foxconn’s 17 suicides. “Many of these changes don’t require much money—just changing the labor laws. Human rights!” he yelled into the phone.
Daisey the Raconteur has become Daisey the Activist, using his storytelling skills to deliver a message about responsible consumerism. He’s not calling for a boycott of Apple—and he hasn’t tossed his iPhone 3 into the Hudson River. “I totally know I’m complicit.… These devices change how we see and interact with the world, and I would not stop using them any more than I would cut off my arm,” he said. “[But] I feel it’s my duty to advocate. No one cares because they don’t know.”
Daisey has a message for all the Microsofties in the audience: Don’t think this isn’t about you. Problems are endemic to the entire industry and our collective thirst for the latest and greatest. We’re all gonna feel guilty. But he also wants us to laugh, and to feel empowered to make changes. Simply put: “We need to grow the fuck up.”