I posted something on facebook that was rather critical of Steve Jobs. Teppo asked that I discuss it at greater length on scatterplot. So here goes. I think people are not wrong to suggest that Jobs was one of the most influential people of the last quarter century. I would call him “A Hero of Our Time.”* He’s representative of and helped usher in the changes in our world — both profound and disturbing. He changed the way we live our lives, in part by increasing the way in which our relations are mediated by objects (whose distribution could not be said to be anything close to “equal”). He was also a capitalist, par excellence.
His company worked to construct a supply chain that was incredibly difficult to externally monitor, and provided a tremendous of insecurity for those working within it. Manufacturing was exported to China, where minimal worker and environmental regulations meant that production processes could employ techniques that were effectively sweatshop-like and at times deployed child labor — leading to the mass suicides and suicide attempts within workplaces as well as the unnecessary poisoning of countless workers. And Apple has had one of the worst environmental records — both in terms of the production process and their products themselves.
Some of the worker poisonings were the product of a decision to use N-hexane instead of alcohol to clean products in the production process. While alcohol is relatively safe, N-hexane is known to damage the central nervous system. But it’s a faster cleaning process. So Jobs and those at Apple decided to use it. Long before these poisonings were made public, Jobs was made aware of them. And he didn’t really care until it became a PR problem. The same can be said of the environmental problems of the production process and the products themselves. About the suicides it’s not so clear. But it’s no mistake that the supply chain was designed in a way for Apple and Jobs to abdicate all responsibility.
What I find particularly interesting is the kind of counterfactual thought experiment: what if this had been Bill Gates instead? I think the response would be far harsher. Now you may think, “yeah, but Microsoft is different… what with its monopolistic practices and what not…” (I’d encourage you to read your iTunes contract sometime and try to maintain this argument). But I think what makes Apple different, what is the true genius of Steve Jobs is in his corporate branding. Because Apple has effectively become the “anti-corporate corporation.” At least to its users.
One of the most dominant corporations in the world — one with a war chest of disposable cash in the tens of billions, built upon cheap labor and high prices — has become, to its users, a kind of “stick-it-to-the-man” manifestation of individual expression. And this is one of the ironies I found, as the remorse poured down my facebook feed. My leftist friends were falling down with sorrow (I’d also note the acceptance of “great man” theories so willingly touted by many who would normally adamantly argue that production is a social process). It’s hard to imagine this kind of hero-worship happening with the likes of a Rockefeller, or a Gates, or any other man who was a corporate titan whose influence was largely the further commodification of the world, the endless pursuit of profit at the expense of workers and the environment, complete with a stunning ambivalence to philanthropic causes (and rather questionable gender politics).
I presently own three Macs and an iPhone (I’m actually on my 3rd such phone, and have owned other Macs in the past). I bought my mother an iPad2 for her birthday this year. I actually quite love these objects. But as we honor the man who helped bring them to us, we might also remember those things we’ve lost in their production — some people their lives, many have been poisoned, and we’ve polluted the environment. All of this has come through a production process based upon the exportation of jobs to the cheapest places with the fewest regulations. It’s been done in the pursuit of the greatest possible profits. It might have been better if it had been Reverend Shuttlesworth or Derrick Bell, but I’m afraid it’s Steve Jobs: A Hero of Our Time.
* This is a (snotty) reference to Lemontov’s novel by the same name — and one of my favorite books. It is the story of a Byron-like “hero.” Camus opens his own novel, “The Fall” with a note about it (which, handily, Wikipedia has — as I’m on a train to Boston and looking it up seemed impossible — god bless technology), “Some were dreadfully insulted, and quite seriously, to have held up as a model such an immoral character as A Hero of Our Time; others shrewdly noticed that the author had portrayed himself and his acquaintances…A Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is in fact a portrait, but not of an individual; it is the aggregate of the vices of our whole generation in their fullest expression.”