|THE JOBS EFFECT|
I've had an Apple MacBook for the last five years. It's the best laptop computer I've owned -- it's fast, light, reliable, easy to use, virus-free, and looks nice. Given the alternatives available, I'll probably get another when this one gives up, and maybe even before that.
That said, I feel no allegiance or loyalty towards Apple, Inc., which is a scummy tax-dodging slave-driving lawsuit-slinging corporation like any other. And though I like my Macbook, when it comes to other Apple gadgets I remain defiantly asexual. I'm simply unable to lust after the various erotically-styled Pods, Pads and Phones that others find so desirable. Truth be told, I don't even like my MacBook that much.
Neither do I feel any empathy for the person or persona of Steve Jobs, the recently deceased and departed Apple CEO, who was a slave-driving capitalist bastard like any other: a sales bullshitter who made a private fortune off the indentured work of others, and who was, even by sympathetic accounts, an obsessive tyrannical arsehole in the office, who made life consistently unpleasant for his employees. Some friends of mine seem to regard his sales pitches as compelling theatre, but I always felt immune to the "Jobs effect". So I was totally unmoved by the news of his death, and baffled by the mass outpouring of grief over it. Some of the tributes were quite ludicrous in their lack of perspective, including that by the president of the United States.
No doubt the extent of this grief is exaggerated by the mainstream media, as it was for Princess Diana, John Paul II, Michael Jackson and other people I was informed I gave a fuck about. And then, as a first-world computer nerd, Internet addict and alleged hipster, I no doubt have a distorted perspective on the grieving anyway. Still, it can't be denied that a lot of people are genuinely upset by the death of Steve Jobs: much as I've tried to avoid all Jobs talk in the last few days, I keep running into eulogies on unrelated blogs, and not all of these bloggers are simply fanboys or shallow bourgeois twats.
Believe it or not, I don't ever like feeling alienated from my peers, and I don't revel in my lack of empathy for the widespread Steve-grief. My purpose on this page is not to malign Apple's fallen guru, or further upset his fans. Instead, I'd prefer to reach out to people at this emotional time, and try to understand why Jobs became such a revered and beloved figure. In the following paragraphs I'll offer my own perspectives on the matter, in the hope that together we can find some common ground.
In any examination of the remarkable cult of Steve, you've got to begin with the attachment people feel to his company. Apple was the first company to realise that a computer was a consumer product, and that as such it should have the same standards of usability, design, elegance and reliability you'd expect in a hi-fi system, a family saloon, or a high-end toaster. I'm not sneering here; I think this is a good thing. Through its commitment to making its products actually pleasant to use, Apple widened the user base of computers beyond its traditional narrow confines. Apple products, while expensive, attracted people who were otherwise turned off by the macho computer-nerd culture, which still persists to some extent in the Linux community. Traditionally, concern for user experience was considered a sign of weakness: if you could't master this horribly unintuitive UI, or better still, go write one yourself, then you weren't fucking hardcore enough and deserved to suffer for it. Apple's more welcoming face provided an alternative to this culture — for a while, the only alternative — and that's the best thing you can say about it.
Apple realised that computers were consumer products, and crucially, it realised that consumer products were not just functional devices. In our free society, they are also lifestyle choices, statements of identity, our one true means of self-expression. We define ourselves through the identities of our favourite brands, and Apple marketed its identity perfectly: it wasn't just the alternative to IBM and Microsoft, it was capital-A Alternative, a corporation for people who don't like corporations. Spurred on by canny product placement, Apple's overpriced gadgets became a symbol of sticking it to The Man. For a long while, if anyone hip or cool in movies cracked open a laptop, you could be sure it had a glowing Apple logo on the back; the same is now true of anyone hip or cool in real life. Bohemians, thinkers, artists, hackers, rebels, writers, fashionistas — the best people of our generation have invested their all-important sense of self in Apple-branded products. And when they lost Steve, they lost a bit of themselves.
The cult of Apple was not created solely by Apple's own marketing. Over the years, Apple has received the patronage of many famous and vocal advocates, some of whom are icons of contemporary cyber-culture almost on a level with Steve himself. Douglas Adams, spiritual father of the InterWeb, was a passionate Apple enthusiast and outspoken critic of its rivals. Stephen Fry, father of Twitter, shits voluminously about Apple products every day. And, as a correspondent recently reminded me, Apple can count no less a figure than Richard Dawkins among its fans. This gifted communicator devoted whole chunks of The Blind Watchmaker to the wonders of his Macintosh. No one as influential or significant has rhapsodised about Linux or Windows, and certainly not as eloquently.
But even more significant in the appeal of Apple is the nostalgia factor. Unusually among today's computer brands, Apple goes right back to the early 80s, and unlike IBM and other surviving contemporaries, Apple didn't make dusty old boxes for your white-collar parents' workplace. Apple machines were right there in front of you, in homes and schools, and Apple machines were loved. An Apple was a treasured break from lessons; an Apple played games and showed you wonders; an Apple was your most reliable friend. And while other people's beloved brands — Commodore, Atari, Acorn — have long disappeared, Apple has stayed there for you, reassuring, a constant throughout your life. Maybe that was the real shock of Steve's death: it was a reminder that life isn't constant; in his mortality, you saw a glimpse of your own.
But I think there's more to it than that. Next to Apple, the only surviving computing brand that inspires comparable loyalty and nostalgia is Nintendo, and it strikes me that the two companies have other similarities. Both were big in the 80s; both came back big after years in the doldrums, riding a wave of goodwill; both have achieved success by targeting their products beyond their traditional userbase; and both have been strongly associated, throughout their history, with a single charismatic central figure. The biggest difference is that Mario is slightly more fictional.
The Steve Jobs most people grieve for is a manufactured persona. When he resumed control of Apple sometime in 1997, Jobs apparently decided not to return as a flesh-and-blood human, but as a kind of living brand logo. He wasn't the CEO of Apple, he was the symbol of Apple, and the essence of Apple. What little we knew about him fit with the marketed Apple vibe: counter-cultural and mystical in inclination, clean and minimalistic in appearance. He was a logo right down to his unvarying wardrobe. His public appearances, wearing one of 365 identical black turtlenecks, couldn't be more stylised if he wore blue dungarees and jumped down a drainpipe. Learning of his death was like learning of Superman's death, or the death of Hope. Steve Jobs was a symbol, an abstraction. And symbols aren't supposed to die!
Steve symbolised more than just Apple, of course. He also symbolised something dear to every liberal's heart. His was a real rags-to-riches story, so we were told: he grew Apple from humble beginnings in a garage, building a computer in his spare time with his friend Woz; he was a hobbyist, an enthusiastic nerd, one of us; and through his singular drive and vision and will, he deterministically made a fortune. Jobs, so the story goes, is a positive vindication of the American Dream.
The story of Jobs's fortune is often constrasted with that of the hated Bill Gates, who happened to be in the right place when IBM came calling; who, to win the IBM deal, bought a hacked-together imitation of his competitor's product and then undercut them; and who then undercut IBM by selling the same product independently. No matter what way you spin Gates's tale, it's reminder that "success" is usually about luck and skulduggery. In Jobs's tale, however, it's easier to elide the many instances where he was a bullying asshole who shafted his friends, the countless times he got lucky, and the countless ways he capitalised on other people's work and creativity. It's easier to strip it down to the bare, wholesome American-Dream essentials. In celebrating the myth of Steve, I fear that some commentators seek to preserve the illusion that individuals in our system are in control of their destiny, that the great fortunes are deserved, that all find their true place in the meritocracy, that Jobs's fortune is within the reach of any "visionary" who tries. And if you believe any of that, good fucking luck to you.