a hero of our time

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.”

22 thoughts on “a hero of our time”

  1. The Gates counterfactual bothers me, too, but more because of Gates’s remarkable philanthropic activities. Here’s a billionaire CEO who has done some ruthless things but also seems committed to providing an astonishing infusion of money and the-energy-money-buys into big real world problems. Gates could have been like Steve Jobs with his money.

    (Which isn’t to say I don’t love my iPad 2.)


  2. To add to the reasons for skepticism about Jobs’ legacy: Apple embodies the extreme opposite of the principles of software freedom and openness in the digital world (and I have many music files that I cannot play since I don’t use Apple devices anymore to prove it).


  3. Shamus: Thanks for the post.

    There’s also a counterfactual where apple is not successful (and they don’t employ the people that they do – I found the “jobs not Jobs”-logic on the FB thread extremely odd: as if those are mutually exclusive or the latter has somehow created the former problem). I’ll have to read more about the suicides and other matters that you mention — tried to look online for information etc but did not really find anything.


  4. The other problem in Jobs’ life story that gets overlooked is that he illegally jumped the queue in the Medical Commons by getting a liver in Tennessee. Transplant policy is very clear: first come, first served. No comorbitidites. Now, jobs is no different from Mickey Mantle, David Crosby and other rich folks in doing so. And others may not find this biographical detail significant, but would anyone else on the planet with a diagnosis of Pancreatic Cancer be given a liver transplant? Not likely. Health disparities trickle up as well as down.


    1. > he illegally jumped the queue in the Medical Commons by getting a liver in Tennessee.

      This is false. He waitlisted in the region with the shortest average wait-time. There is nothing illegal about this, it happens very regularly. It was practical for him to do that because it was easy for him to fly to Memphis if and when he needed to, because he was very wealthy. There’s nothing illegal about listing in a short-waitlist region, however.

      > Transplant policy is very clear: first come, first served. No comorbitidites.

      This is also flatly false. Allocation policy is absolutely not first come, first served.


      1. Kieran,

        I misspoke.

        Obviously it is not illegal to take advantage of states with short waiting lists. Many people, however, consider it unethical. In particular because states with short wait times often have shorter queues, not because they have healthier populations, but because of their stingy Medicaid policies (like Tennessee).

        Second, Jobs was not the first to take advantage of this inequity, merely one of many.

        Third, as you no doubt know, UNOS considers a non-liver cancer diagnosis (often even in remission) to be sufficient grounds to disqualify a patient for eligibility.

        The point is not that Jobs was a bad man. Rather, that many aspects of his life and illness point to the inherent inequities in a system of medical distribution that is designed to account first for medical need, and second for the likelihood of post-transplant survival.

        Mr Jobs, (and for that matter, Mr. Mantle and Mr. Crosby) are not to blame because a system of medical distribution that purports to be transparent and equitable is not. He was merely an interesting case study of the phenomenon.


  5. I went all day without saying anything. I slept on it, and then I woke up feeling even more irritated with this post and comment thread, so here goes:

    Shamus, you are scolding people for grieving. Scolding your friends for grieving the untimely death of someone that they admired. That is just mean. On top of that, you are claiming the moral high ground while doing so? I don’t think so.

    Claiming someone wasn’t so great as admirers think he was is a cheap trick that you can pull on just about everyone, but it doesn’t mean you should. It’s just cold.


    1. Not scolding? Really?

      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).


      1. I actually think Tina is right; the tone there is scolding. And for belittling the suffering of my friends at Jobs death, I’m sorry.

        But I stand by the piece. It may be cold of me — but I think not to discuss things like the oppression of workers, the lack of gender diversity on corporate boards, the damage to the environment, the opposition to philanthropy, and commodification is far colder. This is not just “some guy” who has died — it is someone whose doings have been collectively valorized. And I think a critical intervention is more than warranted.

        I also think the title to the post is important (and the Camus quote). Jobs was not a “great man,” and he does not deserve sole responsibility for either the impact of Apple, nor that company’s failures. Indeed, we are all implicated — myself included in the problems I point to above. We made Steve Jobs Steve Jobs by adapting our lives to Apple’s products: by purchasing them, deploying them, cherishing them, working through them, and enjoying them. I am as much a part of that as everyone else. To re-quote the Camus:

        “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.”


  6. I don’t understand grieving for public figures. Unless you knew them personally, they are just projections. You can be moved by their contributions, of course. But also of course, those will endure. Remark on them as you will, but to feel grief over the death of the individual who made those enduring contributions? Huh.


  7. People obviously felt a connection with Jobs, even though, as Claudia Putnam says, that feeling was all projection. That doesn’t make the feeling of connection any less important or powerful.

    I think people loved Jobs because he gave them products they loved, products that were cool and that made their users cool. Maybe that’s the proper parallel with Miles. Miles may have been a bastard (I don’t think Jobs ever beat up on wives or girlfriends), but he was cool, and his music was cool, and if you listened to it, bought it, and dug it, Miles’s cool was magically transmitted to you.

    People attributed to Jobs an inner coolness (usually combined with “genius”). It was that coolness that imbued Apple products. The coolness came first, the products and profits flowed from it. And if you touched those products and made them part of your life, the coolness flowed to you too.

    Bill Gates does good works and on a grand scale. But for inspiring that kind of emotion, good works are no match for God-given cool charisma.


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