Thursday, 6 October 2011

Making the best of a bad Jobs

Steve Jobs, co-founder and until recently head of Apple died last night. As a long-time Apple user, one with all his previous Apples in storage (a Mac II SE, a blue clamshell iBook, a white iBook, and I'm typing this on my battered and semi-broken MacBook Pro), you might expect me to be weeping geeky tears onto my backlit keyboard and joining in with the web's wailing and gnashing of teeth, and of course I am saddened by a premature, painful death (and have posted something kinder and more philosophical about it here).

But this nerd isn't joining the howls of anguish. When I got my first Mac (from a skip, 1997), I had no idea what was odd or distinct about it other than the fact that you could make it quack like a duck: it was a free, small computer discarded by my university. Needing something more portable later on, I acquired a used laptop and gradually became aware that a) people laughed at Mac users and b) the company was in deep trouble. For a while, I was dumb enough to identify with the corporation, thinking that using an 'alternative' system made me a culture warrior, something more than a consumer. I revelled in being in a minority, sucked up the rumours about the origin of the bitten apple logo (supposedly referring to the poisoned one eaten by poor persecuted Turing, which now seems like a monstrous appropriation by a capitalist corporation).

It wore off. I became conscious of the fact that Apple was then simply a less successful corporate monster, and is now the most successful one in the jungle. I continue to use Macs because they're designed beautifully, in visual, computing and interface terms, but my membership of the Cult of Mac has long been over. I'm hopelessly compromised, as are we all - I know through friends in music, design and other fields that the Mac has transformed Western lives. But I also know that 'Designed in California, Made in China' means that for all its modernist sleekness, the Macintosh, my iPod and everything else Apple - just like whatever machine you're using to read this - is soaked in blood and the sweat of exploited workers. Apple is a capitalist machine, nothing more.

This is the guilty secret in which we're all complicit. While Jobs, Ive, Gates et al. wow us with shiny toys, their real innovation is in the financial sphere: they've all harnessed the legal and political forces of darkness to make billions on the backs of their subcontracted non-employees, customers and states, while hiding the vast majority of their profits from the legitimate demands of government. Apple is a company with 50% profit margins and virtually no employees: like most companies, manufacturing is subcontracted to distant, poorer places with few or no environmental or labour regulations. You might say that the iPad or iPhone are classically postmodernist: the smooth lines and virtual absence of physical presence hides an economy based on globalised exploitation.

As an aside, our lovely Tory government thinks that the way to revive our economy is to ape the world's sweatshops by removing the minimal worker and environmental rights for which we've fought. Witness the egregious Louise Mensch, scion of massive inherited wealth and privilege, who is unlikely to ever require the kind of protection she's happy to abolish for others:
The left think they're helping working people by providing more rights, but all that actually happens is you create poverty and despair, because jobs go to your competitors who have fewer rights for workers. So which is the compassionate policy? I believe Toryism is the compassionate policy."

The obituaries for Steve Jobs make much of his famed attention to detail, which frequently slipped into dictatorial, 'asshole' territory. He became a billionaire who refused to join that group of philanthropic rich men who tried to make amends for their distortion of the economy. Apple used lobbyists and lawyers to extract tax concessions while sitting on a cash pile of $50bn and exporting manufacturing jobs to dictatorships: with those profit margins, Apple could have thrived while running factories in the US.

To me, Jobs and Branson are the true products of the 60s: underneath the easygoing grins, the polo-necks, jeans and Converse which convey rejection of stuffed-shirt orthodoxy beat the hearts of cold and ruthless entrepreneur who parlayed the period's fascination with self-improvement into pure self-interest.

Like your Apple. Just don't get sentimental or superior about it.

(For a witty in-joke memorialising Jobs, see this XKCD cartoon and don't miss the roll-over panel).


Grumpy Bob said...

Nice article. I'm a Mac user (MacBook Pro), but prefer Linux. I also (only occasionally) use a Windows PC. While I'm sad that Jobs is no longer with us, I'm unsettled by the really very uncritical hyperbole being spattered across the web in obituaries.

Apple's apparent strategy of squashing competition in the courts rather than by winning through innovation seems to me to indicate a company in decline.

I thoroughly dislike the 'walled garden' of iOS-land, a garden that is really so restrictive as to be a prison. The greedy approach to the app store leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Music for Deckchairs said...

There's the capital issues, and then there's the human. I think they're separate for me. I'm surrounded by Mac products as I write this to you, and like you I'm made uncomfortable by their casual, beguiling promise of political and material depthlessness. We're in thrall to slim. And slim is achieved at a human cost. Once you start reading long enough about conflict minerals etc your eyes do start to close with a shudder, really.

But at a human level I'm still impressed and moved by any public figure who uses that platform to speak of love and risk, and to be candid about death. We can hold public figures to stern account, for sure, and maybe we can do that in exact calibration to their personal wealth, their income, their position in capitalism's great heaving food chain, but I'm not sure we get better at our own tricky navigation of the human when we do it.

Thought provoking stuff, PV.

The Plashing Vole said...

MfD: I think your penultimate sentence is the key one. My post is pretty judgemental and even pompous: it's easy to assume moral superiority from behind my keyboard. You're right: knowing Jobs' faults hasn't improved me very much.