It’s always sad when someone suffers and dies earlier than they might otherwise have because of cancer. So I am sad that Steve Jobs has died. Of course, were he a nobody instead of a billionaire, though, I wouldn’t have felt anything about it. I would have ignored his death like all the other strangers’ deaths.
I am not much of a believer in the sorts of ideals Steve Jobs came to represent, and seeing the outpouring of gratitude in various media outlets for how he “invented the future” and so forth has made me feel more than usually estranged from the culture I live in. So forgive me if I come across as sour or surly. For his hagiographers, Jobs is an innovative, entrepreneurial genius who gave concrete form to the inchoate desires of the masses to live more beautiful lives. Indeed, he is the man whose marketing savvy brought us the gadgets that set us free to become what we wanted to be, the stylish silhouettes dancing in the old original iPod advertisements, opaque and indistinguishable in their solipsism.
What I see when instructed to appreciate the awesomeness of the world that Jobs helped created is a world full of atomized consumers enthralled by gadgets that promise to augment their lives but just as often compress them, reify them, codify them into quantified data. I see a superficial aesthetic anchored in fastidious fonts and hermetic product design that I am supposed to receive as a special consolation, a privilege of my era as wonderful as electricity or refrigeration. I see commercial products specifically designed to repel curiosity and DIY modification championed as harbingers of the triumph of the “personal.” I see gadgets design to accelerate consumption and subsume more of everyday live to the anxieties of mediation represented as great enablers of productive self-expression. Apple under Jobs put a sleek, brushed-aluminum case on the ideology of consumerism and convinced us it had sparked some sort of revolution.
I have no special complaints about the functionality of Apple’s products, though they are relatively overpriced. Their vaunted ease of use has only occasionally disappointed me, though I have never understood why I was supposed to be so grateful for it. Praising products for merely working seems to speak of our undue tolerance for broken, shabby things, not a generalized elevation of expectations. And outside of fast fashion, perhaps no company exemplifies the commitment to obsolescence more rigorously than Apple. No other company has been more successful in leveraging the media to make its perfectly functional products seem useless and outdated on a regular schedule. All hail “innovation”!
Still, my problem has always been more with the cult of Apple and of Jobs himself. To me, Jobs represented the tyranny of design, the soft command of seductive interfaces, the covert control through cleverly marketed convenience, the triumph of closed, hierarchical systems over open-source ones, commercial protocols and the ethos of the gated community over the commons. More than any other corporate executive, he commoditized creativity and sold it as a fungible status symbol. Apple is supposed to serve as proof that good design can drive capitalist expansion, that market competition will ultimately produce only things that are held by consensus to be not only utilitarian but beautiful. But one could also see this as a demonstration of capitalist ideology’s advance—it no longer needs appeals to utility and rationality to justify itself, but can presume its subjects will regard exchange itself is beautiful, that its logic can only but yield pleasure. Apple thus betokens a growing dependence on the market in order to experience pleasure. We must buy things to entitle ourselves to an aesthetic feeling.
That I own an iPod probably opens me to accusations of hypocrisy in some people’s eyes. Complaining about consumerism but still shopping for things probably makes me a hypocrite to such people (if they are not straw men) too. If you participate at all in the status quo—if it ensnares you as it is intended to—you have no right to criticize it. It’s incumbent instead to celebrate it. A cursory look at Twitter shows there is certainly no shortage of cheerleaders. When I listen to music, it doesn’t mean that much to me if it happens to come from an iPod. But Apple ideology tells me it should, that the device is more significant than what “content” it conveys. My reactionary response has been to fetishize vinyl.
Part of me feels viscerally an envy with regard to Jobs that marks the degree to which I’ve vicariously participated in the myth that has been built around him, in the entrepreneur worship, the fantasy of power—of being able to alter other’s lives and still be regarded as benevolent. Technology is a perfect vector for that sort of power, masking the agency of those who develop it and program it and representing that as irresistible progress. That instinctive envy engenders a deep skepticism of Silicon Valley, of the sort of people drawn to it, those who seeking technocratic means to dominate the world, impose a vision, dictate the contours of others’ lives. Jobs worship perpetuates the idea that proprietary technology is developed for us, for our improvement and our needs, rather than for profit or for the egos of venture capitalists and self-proclaimed visionaries. It makes more sense to me, if you want to worship tech gurus, to choose someone like Linus Torvalds, though I doubt he’ll be on the cover of Time when he dies.