Thinking about Steve Jobs

When I first heard that Steve Jobs was dead, I shrugged and carried on working. I never met him or interacted with him in any way, and he had little impact on my life; it's sad that he's dead, in the general way that it's sad when anyone dies, but I have no context for any deeper feeling. Thousands of people die every day and we pay it little mind.

Since then, though, I've been reading all the responses to the news, and now I find I feel a large sense of frustration at the way his life has been interpreted in many quarters.

I read a particularly galling article just now in one of my least favourite papers, the Globe & Mail, ostensibly directed at the Occupy Wall Street protesters but really directed at the sense of self-satisfaction of its readers, which crystallized everything that to me seems wrong about much of the reaction to Jobs' death.

The G&M's theory is that everything Jobs achieved, he owed to Wall Street; that all his great achievements could never have happened without the modern American capitalist system embodied by Wall Street. No Wall Street, no Jobs, no Apple.

I think it's interesting to look at this claim in the context of the four, to me, most significant phases of Jobs' career Apple Phase I, NExT, Pixar, and Apple Phase II.

I'd say that all of Jobs' most significant achievements came in the first three of these. Apple Phase I was a true early Silicon Valley company: it was not driven by conventional capitalism at all, it was driven by a couple of kids with an innate interest in early personal computer hardware screwing around in a garage. It doesn't seem to have been motivated by any kind of desire to build a world-straddling corporate behemoth; it was motivated by a desire to build cool machines that did interesting stuff. And that's what Apple I built: cool computers with which people did deeply interesting stuff. They learned to program, they improved the efficiency of all kinds of processes in all kinds of worlds - big business, yes, but academia and small business and the home and all the other sectors of human activity. Early Apple computers, like all other early personal computers, were fundamentally rough-and-ready, open, learning environments. You poked around and figured out how stuff worked. You traded ideas with friends. You thought of new ways to do things. A couple of Apple ][s were part of the whole menagerie of computers my family had at home when I was young, on which my Dad, myself and my sisters played - not just in the sense of 'playing games' but in the sense of 'playing around', which is a much more interesting and useful one.

NExT was very similar to Apple Phase I: it was still fundamentally a company made up of the kinds of people who screwed around with Apple ][s when they were kids. It built interesting and hackable computers and software with which people in all the same sectors did equally interesting and productive stuff. As everyone involved had grown up a bit and there was more money sloshing around in the industry it looked more like a conventional corporation than did Apple Phase 1, but it was still at heart a geeks' company, like Apple or the early HP or many other such companies. Geeks will be geeks, whether they're being paid for it or not. Money might help them do things a bit faster, and few geeks say no to large quantities of it, but it's not the point.

Pixar is one of the most old-fashioned businesses in the world: it's a company of actors and writers. They tell stories, just as people have told stories for years and years. Since Disney bought the company the money side has come into play with crass cash-ins like Cars 2, but all the really great Pixar films are fundamentally combinations of great technology with great stories: that's why they're great, that's why we love and remember them. People have been writing, remembering and telling each other great stories since before we had any kind of economy at all, never mind a post-Enlightenment capitalist one. It's hard to believe the great stories that the wonderfully talented storytellers at Pixar have produced would not have been told, loved, and remembered in some form or another no matter when, where or under what kind of economic systems those storytellers had been born.

Which brings us to Apple Phase 2. Finally we have a part of Jobs' career which, as the G&M argued, could likely not have happened without modern capitalism. The current incarnation of Apple is not an engineers' company like old Apple was. It's not really driven by a desire to do cool and interesting things with personal computers. It's driven by a simple desire to make an awful lot of money, to be the world-striding corporate behemoth Apple Phase 1 never was. It's very good at that.

What does Apple Phase 2 produce? It produces, essentially, fripperies. Polished, shiny, well-designed, addictive, yet ultimately superfluous toys. Apple's personal computer side is no longer the heart of the business, and no longer aims so hard at the tinkerers or creative people it used to. (It's still hanging on to a lot of those people because the competition is so poor and Apple's legacy is so strong, but I doubt anyone could argue it's at the heart of what Apple does any more). The heart of Apple's business is now consumer electronics, and despite the vaguely aspirational nature of its advertising, those consumer electronics are fundamentally toys. They are dedicated to no higher goal than to allow us to pass dead time elegantly. The iPhone works as a phone, sure, but then so do any number of other products made since the 1980s. If the iPhone hadn't existed our practical ability to communicate with each other wouldn't be affected one whit. What people really do with their iPhones, iPods and iPads is to play - and not in the sense of playing around, really, but just playing.

There's nothing wrong with unproductive play. All of us do it at some time or another. No-one can be 'on' all day every day; we get fatigued and just want to sit down and do something relaxing for a bit. But the key point here is that the forms of unproductive play just really don't matter all that much. Given the choice between listening to some music on an iPod when you've got ten minutes to wait for a bus and no-one else is around and just sitting there staring at a bush, you'll probably go for the iPod, sure. But people have been sitting around waiting for things to happen for millennia, and we've always come up with some way to distract ourselves; from reading a book to whistling to adding up numbers in our heads. It's just not important. No-one is going to look back on their life and see the ten minutes they spent listening to Lady Gaga while they waited for the number 52 to Darlington as a transcendent moment in their life. It was just dead time that they filled.

I don't think there's anything terribly evil about the products Apple Phase 2 makes, specifically. If there's any evil to them at all it's a symptom not a cause: a symptom of societies that are probably tilted somewhat too far towards making and buying utterly unnecessary fripperies. It's not worth getting all hot under the collar about how closed down and un-hackable modern Apple hardware is, but it is worth noting those attributes: they're simply a consequence of the purpose of modern Apple hardware, which is not for you to learn how electronics work or learn how to write programs or come up with interesting new ways of doing things (or even interesting new things), but simply for you to play around. They're toys. No-one ever got hot under the collar because their Barbie Doll wasn't fully user-serviceable; it's a toy. If you want a toy, by all means, buy one. If you don't want a toy, buy something else. (Again, Apple computers are still quite usable as computers, and I understand those who find Apple computers meet their practical computing needs, but throughout Apple Phase 2, they've only ever gone in a more toy-like direction, never back the other way.)

So really, the only phase of Jobs' career to which modern capitalism was essential was the last and most superficial one. All the truly significant things Jobs did and achieved were not essentially dependent on the capitalist economy at all. They existed within it; certain good features of capitalism may have contributed to their development. But they were all manifestations of things that have happened for millennia, under any conceivable economic system. If the iPhone and iPod and iPad were erased from history tomorrow, maybe we'd all use slightly clunkier cellphones, and use them a bit less. But would human experience be fundamentally altered? No. If Apple Phase 1 and NExT hadn't existed, or rather if the whole early and middle Silicon Valley scenes of which it was a fundamental part hadn't existed, the worlds of computing and even science might be noticeably retarded in development in comparison to where they really are. If Pixar hadn't existed, the beautiful stories it told might have been lost to millions of people; the inspiring and uplifting effects of great stories are significant forces in peoples lives, things you remember to the end. Toys, usually, are not.

I'm not anti-capitalist in particular. I suspect it may be to economic systems what Churchill described democracy as being to political systems - the worst choice apart from all the others. But it does frustrate me to see unthinking or even cynical capitalism-worship, this idea that the greatest thing Steve Jobs ever did was build some shiny toys that made some modern-day Apple shareholders very rich. It was not.

(The other thing that annoys me about much of the response to Jobs' passing is the way it contributes to the largely mythical concept of individual exceptionalism, but I'm sure I'll get to that another time. :>)

Comments wrote on 2011-10-08 16:04:
Nothing more to say that BRAVO! I haven't made time to say this on my own blog, but I wanted to. Too late now, I guess. Oh well. The only interesting thing which happened from my point of view in the Apple Phase II era was at its very beginning when they managed to make really user friendly and shiny Unix. That was inspiring and challenging (and it is still inspiring and challenging after all these years). But since then I got more and more bored with whole Apple thing. I just cannot make myself excited about new and fascinating ways how to get money out of people's pocket.