In defence of Steve Jobs

The idea that Jobs and his brilliant Apple gadgets were responsible for alienation in the West and for ‘slavery’ in the East is i-nonsense on stilts.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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So, Steve Jobs: the messiah or a very naughty boy? An Edison-style innovator who deserves our worship for liberating mankind from the bondage of landline phones and newspaper print, or an evil capitalist whose determination to furnish Western hipsters with sexy gadgets led to slavery and even suicide in factories in China? Those are the two images we have been bombarded with since Jobs’ death on Wednesday. But neither is right. Jobs was undoubtedly a great innovator, one of the best of our times, but he was not the maker of historic breakthroughs, as fancied by Apple-worshippers, and nor was he the destroyer of Chinese lives, as imagined by that now hippest crowd of all: Apple-haters.

Given his immense contributions to technology, it is fitting that Jobs’ passing has been a huge talking point. I am one of those no doubt millions of people who, in the words of President Obama, ‘learned of his passing on a device he invented’. When I was in Tibet last year, I regularly sang the praises of Jobs (rather than Buddha) because my iPhone allowed me to take photos and write notes about what I was seeing and to connect to the internet even when I was halfway up a mountain. By ‘putting the internet in our pockets’, another Obama line, Jobs helped people to connect to the everyday business and antics of humanity even when they were in Tibet, that kingdom that earlier generations of stuff-hating aristocrats legged it to when they wanted to escape the beeping and buzzing of modernity.

Yet in recent years it has become fashionable to hate Jobs and hold him responsible for things he isn’t responsible for. Where in the 1990s, one signalled one’s moral and techno superiority over the Microsoft masses by declaring oneself to be ‘a Mac’, over the last five years that old breed of Nathan Barley-style whizzkid has been out-hipped by a new cool caste: the Apple-sceptic. From commentariat circles to the new radical left, it’s now de rigueurto turn your nose up at Apple products (even if you use them). Apparently these gadgets are responsible for social alienation here in the West, because they have nurtured ‘iZombies’, and even worse for depression and death in the Eastern factories where they are assembled.

So Jobs has been fingered as the cause of, or at least deepener of, our alienated lives. He created the ‘iPod world’, said Andrew Sullivan in the early 2000s, where in place of an engaged and engaging public sphere, we now have ‘pod people’ shuffling through the streets. ‘Hell is other iPods’, said an article in 2005, accusing the iPod of ‘enforcing separation’. One commentator said last year that Jobs ‘kidnapped’ many normal people, ‘planted something terrible, and returned them – as iZombies’.

But it is bonkers to blame gadgets for the problems of alienation and the awkwardness of the modern public sphere. Atomisation was already existing, for many profound reasons, and modern technology merely reflects and in some ways caters to that fact. Society usually gets the technology it deserves, so it isn’t surprising that in our era of heightened individualism and declining public engagement we get gadgets that allow us to create our own inner worlds of music or to read our favourite news sources as we commute. Jobs didn’t cause alienation – he helped to make it more bearable, by giving us the means to focus on what we like as we traverse public spaces that have been so pummelled by government snooping, police regulations, CCTV cameras and an atmosphere of alienation that they’re no longer always pleasant places.

It is absolutely no coincidence that it became cool to hate Apple just as Apple started to make products for (whisper it) ‘the masses’. Back when Apple was largely known as the provider of smooth computers to graphic designers and Guardian columnists, there was nothing cooler than being an Applehead. But then it made the iPod and the iPhone, which you can now see everyone from paint-covered builders to Romanian au pairs tapping away on, and that meant it was just another engine of ‘mass consumerism’, the thing the chattering classes hate most. So where in the Nineties, people who used Apple products were presumed to be erudite and tasteful, now people who use Apple products are ‘iZombies’ or ‘hostages’, as one columnist calls them. In the eyes of the opinion-forming classes, Jobs’ great crime was to include the little people in his techno-revolution, to give glossy gadgets to the masses as well as the intellectuals, since that robbed these gadgets of the special symbolism that allowed their users to declare: ‘I am above the crowd.’

As to the idea that Jobs was the killer of Chinese people, this, too, is fuelled by the perverse fantasies of the uncomfortable-with-capitalism cultural elite. Following some suicides at the factories in China in which Apple stuff is put together, it became fashionable here in the West to indulge in orgies of iGuilt, to whip both yourself and everyone else for wanting gadgets so badly that we’re willing to turn a blind eye to ‘enslavement’ in China. The deaths in China were referred to as ‘The iPad suicides’, with journalists saying: ‘Should you blame yourself for all those deaths at the Chinese electronics factory? Yes.’

Yet as I argued on spiked last year, anyone who looked at the number of suicides in these vast factories, which can employ up to 400,000 people, would have realised that the suicide rate was lower in these places than it was in China as a whole. The self-flagellation of iPad-using hacks in the West merely revealed how shallow and moralistic so-called anti-capitalism is these days, where the aim is not to analyse social relations, all the better to overhaul them, but rather to partake in a borderline Catholic guilt trip about the impact of our greed on their lives. In one fell swoop, Jobs-bashers manage to criminalise the material aspirations of Western consumers, the iZombies whose desires are apparently dangerous, and to infantilise Chinese workers, who are depicted as hapless victims, in need of rescue by that super-super-cool tribe of East Coast and Shoreditch hipsters who now actually boycott Apple products. Rad, man.

Yet if Jobs was not the devil, he wasn’t the iMessiah either. The treatment of Jobs as one of the greatest innovators of all time, his name now mentioned in the same breath as Edison’s, is also overblown. Perhaps his problem was to be born at a time when, socially and technologically, mankind has pretty low ambitions. Forget the space race or nuclear power or flying cars, the focus of innovative thinking today tends to be on creating mostly self-reflective gadgets, tools that allow for Twittering, therapeutic communication, displays of public preening. Ours is an age in which technologies that tame nature and reshape the world are frowned upon as dirty, while technologies that allow us to update our statuses or reveal our innermost boring thoughts are smothered in praise. Jobs did those new technologies better than most – but imagine what he could have done in an era when technology was about unlocking nature’s secrets and shaping history?

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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