Spoiler alert — Steve Jobs died last week! I know! Pretty sad, right? An onslaught of commentary hailed Apple’s co-founder and black-skivvied creative guru as a visionary genius whose inventions changed lives — even, indirectly, those of people who didn’t identify deeply with Apple’s products in the ways Jobs encouraged.
However, it’s intriguing how quickly an anti-hagiographic counter-discourse arose online. Under the headline “What everyone is too polite to say about Steve Jobs”, Gawker’s Ryan Tate summarised Jobs’s bullying manner as well as arguing he personally spearheaded Apple’s unethical, controlling and anti-competitive business practices.
Writer and performer Mike Daisey — who visited the Chinese factories where Apple products are manufactured under cruel, miserable conditions — argued that the famously future-oriented Jobs himself would reject the nostalgic glow that has lately covered his legacy.
Closer to home, I was struck by how many of the comments here at Crikey took pains to distance themselves from Jobs worship.
And while I observed some of my social network respond with startlingly personal and emotional tweets and status updates about Jobs’s death, or change their profile pictures to images of the Apple logo, others were openly critical of Jobs personally and Apple as a company.
Another replied to my own status update (“Steve Jobs crashed Twitter”) with, “On the upside, though, he did quash the future of free information.”
Today, my Twitter friend Oliver Palmer wondered why Apple’s website still has its commemorative Jobs splash page. Palmer compared the company’s staffers to “exhausted Soviets collapsing at a political rally because none of them want to be first to stop clapping, lest they be followed home by secret police. Does no one at Apple wanna be the first to suggest that they take Steve off the homepage?”
University of Canberra journalism lecturer Glen Fuller has critiqued what he sees as a contradictory kind of grief among his own social network, “a cohort strongly empathetic with those who suffer because of the injustices in the world”, yet who, in mourning Jobs’s death, are inadvertently celebrating “the various mechanisms by which suffering and injustice are reproduced”.
Or, as one of my Facebook friends annotated an image of mourners lighting candles outside the San Francisco Apple Store: “One step further comrades and you can burn it down!”
Fuller has nailed the central confusion over how to react to Jobs’s death: “Jobs has come to personify the work of an entire company. This is evident in the way those on Twitter slip from discussing Jobs to discussing what ‘they’ did. Jobs is not a ‘they’.”
It’s been widely noted that Jobs sought to become his company’s public face and sole conduit of information. As industry analyst Horace Dediu remarked in a list of achievements that shouldn’t be ascribed to Steve Jobs, he was not “charismatic” but plain speaking; he animated Apple with his personal will and vision. It’s remarkable how little Jobs himself created; he was much more a strategist and curator, surrounding himself with the best people to impose the future he envisaged. Yet he deliberately encouraged a public perception that Apple’s products were his ideas.
The products Jobs oversaw were also atomising agents, empowering individuals rather than groups and encouraging one-on-one relationships symbolised by that ubiquitous lower-case i. And as Melissa Gregg argues at The Conversation, Jobs defined and personified a new kind of worker: “an ambitious, dedicated, and committed professional class that seeks recognition and passion in creative work”.
We grieve Steve because we love our Jobs … but as I’ve argued at Crikey before, sometimes love just ain’t enough. Perhaps the loss of Jobs also hammers home another loss of jobs, as the much-vaunted “creative class” that overwhelmingly uses Apple products — and defines itself at least partly by this use — is turning out to be increasingly illusory and economically unsustainable for its workers.
Setting aside our reservations about a company that has emphasised individual creative fulfilment at the cost of philanthropy, environmental sustainability, workers’ rights and freedom of information, Jobs’s death symbolises an ideas vacuum about the viability of the employment modality he inspired.
One thing that’s worth celebrating is his conviction and his constant, genuine and risky investment in the future, which seem sorely lacking in much other contemporary leadership. The Onion was spot on in announcing: “Last American Who Knew What The F-Ck He Was Doing Dies”.
“I think it’s funny how critical people are yet they offer no alternative,” commenter “Galen” remarked about the anti-Apple sentiment at Mental Floss. “Some people are just hipster turds that live to tear everything down. Great contribution loser.”
It is depressing to imagine future entrepreneurship sandwiched between economically rationalist corporations that protect the status quo by whittling away creatively invested, potentially fortune-making workers, and a politically apathetic, risk-averse “audience class” more interested in consuming and complaining than innovating and agitating.
But to me it seems inescapable that the man most directly responsible for this impasse, this confusion, is Steve Jobs.