I was a bit taken aback by the outpouring of grief for Steve Jobs … I had no idea that so many people would take the loss so personally. And I had no idea that he would be cheered as such a “great American”. I wonder if Bill Gates will engender such a deeply personal reaction when he passes?
Now, don’t get me wrong: if you are a great believer in American capitalism, then Steve Jobs should be a hero to you. He is, unquestionably, one of the great capitalists of his generation.
And I understand that many people have a deep fondness for the gadgets he developed. I know many people who swear by Macs, and won’t even touch a PC unless it is absolutely necessary. I hear the testimonials about how the iPod changed the whole musical landscape, though I don’t buy that for one minute.* I see the people who fetishize their iPhones and iPads, and though I can appreciate them as cool little toys, they are far from “game changers” as far as I can see.
I do not own a single device that was created directly by Apple (though, not being a techie, I may have some devices with Jobs-developed tech in them and not know it). I never got a Mac because they were/are expensive and don’t play well with other computers. I never got an iPod because they have obnoxiously proprietary software, and they don’t play well with the online music sites I subscribe to (though, that aside, I do think they are the finest portable music devices currently made). I haven’t got an iPad because, frankly, given the amount of typing I do on a computer, it would be of much less use to me than a laptop, and you can get a pretty decent laptop for the price of an iPad. I do lust after an iPhone to a small degree, but the stupid phone that I currently have serves my needs well enough (plus I don’t have to pony up for a ridiculous plan just so I can check scores on my phone when I’m stuck at work).
Indeed, the proprietary nature of all of Jobs’s hardware seems anti-democratic (“If you want the cool stuff, you have to pay for the cool stuff, and you have to buy it from me. And you not only have to buy the hardware from me, but the software as well. And you’re going to have to pay extra, because this is, after all, the cool stuff.”). The proprietary nature of his tech was designed to create a self-sustaining market for his products. More than creating cool stuff, Jobs was interested in cornering a market by creating cool stuff. The cool stuff was not the end, it was the means, with market domination as its end. To me, he’s nowhere near being in the same league as whoever it was who introduced consumer-grade recordable media to the general public … now there was a guy/gal/team of folk who really changed things.
There is the air of hipness around Apple, an air of exclusivity. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to think of Apple products as fetish objects. And while I do appreciate that there is a level of high design to everything that Jobs touched, I don’t think that Apple products are held in the regard they are simply because of their quality: it’s all about fashion, and it’s fashion dictated by marketing. At the end of the day, Jobs’s real triumph was not in technology, it was in marketing.
Please do not take this as a criticism of Steve Jobs: I live with a designer, I have designers in the immediate family, I understand the value of design. Design was the cornerstone of his marketing, and even if marketing was his real triumph, design was essential to his marketing campaign. He was very, very good at what he did. The only problem I have is that I’m not sure all the eulogizing takes into account what he really did.
Again, Jobs was the consummate capitalist. I can admire him in the same way that I admire a consummate basketball coach … Bobby Knight, say. Furthermore, as far as I know, Jobs conducted his business in a relatively moral and forthright way, given the morality and rules of capitalism. I have no problem whatsoever with Steve Jobs as capitalist.
But I do have a problem with Steve Jobs as cultural icon. The kind of culture that worships Steve Jobs is a culture reduced to a glossy magazine ad. Or, perhaps more accurately, a culture reduced to a trendy lifestyle-enhancing iPhone app.
* That argument could be made for the faceless Japanese engineer/design team at Sony who invented the Walkman, thereby changing dramatically the role of music in our lives. The iPod, to me, is an updated Walkman with a big promotional campaign.