Since the death of Steve Jobs last week the innovator has been lauded as a visionary who changed the way we live our lives. Charles Brown thinks different.
Death often brings out the mawkish, particularly when it comes to public figures. Unless the recently deceased is a war criminal, sexual predator or tabloid columnist people are generally willing to forgive the celebrity / politician / sportsman his or her foibles and shortcomings and instead, bathe them in the rosy light of fond remembrance. This is an entirely natural response and one can usually forgive the hyperbole that accompanies the celebration of this or that c-lister’s life.
One could argue that it is even more understandable when individuals have made a genuine impact on the world and their achievements have been remarkable. Peacemakers, scientists, novelists, artists, directors, and inventors – we quite rightly take note of such individuals, although usually the tributes are properly leavened with an acknowledgement of failings.
But sometimes, critical faculties evaporate into the ether along with any sense of proportion. Case in point: Apple founder and innovator, Steve Jobs.
The beatification of Steve Jobs is now well underway. Already, Jobs is shaping up as a secular saint for Silicon Valley, and one can assume that in the minds of the developer and venture capital community he is already installed alongside the father, von Neumann, and the holy mother, Ayn Rand. Certainly, if the fervour of the true believers is any measure, laying their votive offerings at shrines - Apple likes to call them stores – across the world, then it would be foolish not to expect an announcement from the Vatican (or Cupertino) any day soon.
But grief often robs us of our critical faculties so perhaps we shouldn’t be to hard on commentators like Julian Baggini…. But there again perhaps, we should.
Baggini was just one of the hagiographers paying gushing tribute to Jobs last week. Indeed, the Sundays are full of it as well. Baggini managed in his article to push the whole bathetic spectacle to new levels of silliness. Why? Because Jobs did not simply change the way we view technology, "the biggest change ....is to the way both its critics and cheerleaders think about capitalism."
The claims regarding Jobs' impact on design, computing and the content industries are overstated but not entirely without foundation. One argument against this view is the classic Marxist criticism that attributing achievements to a single individual ignores the collective nature of industrial creation. Like the 'great man' theory of history, the lone genius model of industrial innovation is an ideological construct that obscures its true nature and rarely stands up to interrogation. A number of bloggers and facebook posts link to Brecht's Questions From a Worker Who Reads (always worth revisiting).
There is much in this this view. Jobs would also, I think, have been one of the first to concede that he was just one innovator amongst many at Apple. If Jobs had a talent it was perhaps more providing the integrating vision and acting as a talent spotter. Much has been said of his design talent but surely that lies with chief designer Jonathan Ive and his international team, as much as any other. It is also worth saying that Jobs (and Apple) didn't always lead the way but they have been particularly good at spotting where the pioneering technologies and products fall short. There were lots of music devices and download sites around before the iPod and iTunes, but none of them brought everything together in one offer and ensured that all the parties - most importantly the device manufacturer and the content providers - worked together.
There is another criticism of Apple. This highlights Apple's questionable practices (to say the least) in outsourcing production to Chinese companies like Foxconn, the exploitation of overseas workers, and focuses upon the suicides and attempted suicides in these workplaces. Jobs own statement regarding the Chinese plants seemed at best naive: ""You go in this place, and it's a factory but, my gosh, they've got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools," Jobs said. "For a factory, it's pretty nice." Such purblind boosterism is hardly atypical of Western companies outsourcing in China.
Do such factors mean that Jobs' career (and life) is unworthy of comment? I think not. It is hard not to feel queasy at all the talk of the John Lennon of tech but clearly there is something here worth examining.
Baggini's arguments are another thing. Firstly is his suggestion that Apple was different because it anticipated what customers might want and pursued excellence in design and performance. It may seem neat to position Apple as poster-child for post-Fordist, "any colour you want as long as it's black (or in the PC-industry, beige)" but capitalism has always been driven by innovation in its products, processes and practices. Modern capitalism in, "constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. ....Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones." That's not Design Week or the Harvard Business Review, in the 1990s or 2000s, it's Marx in 1848.
His arguments over brands are more simpleminded yet. Baggini's seems to have bought into the mantras of marketing theorists (and the No Logo counterargument) in fairly uncritical fashion. The former have long tended to form the (the brand) over content (the product) and too often collapse the latter into the former. No sensible observers (especially on the left) bought into this guff and certainly a rejection of brand-fetishism doesn't make one oblivious to the qualities of well-made, well-designed products.
Baggini is not daft enough to ignore the critique of the individualist theory of history. But only the vulgar form of this approach was so crude so as to ignore the importance of the individual. Indeed, Trotsky engaged with this issue directly, most notably in his History of the Russian Revolution. In short, Baggini is attacking a straw man.
And so he is too when he says that "Jobs is actually exhibit A in any case against the idea that the market is maximally efficient and can be left to take care of things by itself. A slap in the face to free-market fundamentalists, but hardly comfort to anti-capitalists either. Jobs doesn't show that capitalism is a flawed system, only that it is not perfectly self-regulating."
And ......? This is simply banal. Capitalism has never been perfectly self-regulating, nor does any sensible Marxist argue that capitalism is unable to produce compelling, commercially successful products or, for that matter, create new needs and wants.
Steven Jobs may have made a not-insignificant contribution to redesigning and creating a great many things. Capitalism wasn't one of them.
From Gramsci's Grill
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