Thursday, October 06, 2011

Steve Jobs vs. The Real World

Yesterday Steve Jobs died. He was fairly young, and had struggled with cancer for some time. Luckily he had the resources to prolong both his life and his career, and did so with great relish. In the wake of his passing, the world that Mr./ Jobs had a hand in creating is vibrating with new insights and adulation for him, with people from every part of the world and every walk of life calling him a genius, one of a kind, generous, maverick. Comparisons to the bible and Leonardo da Vinci have been made.

But let's be realistic here. Steve Jobs was not the only person at the cutting edge of technology. He stood on the shoulders of his scientific predecessors, and had a whole generation of peers. And he is not solely responsible for every Apple product on the market. He gets credit for innovative and phenomenal brand-making, and great marketing, but that's not really scientific genius. He had a hand in a lot of innovation, but in recent years he's worked over and with literally hundreds of other very smart individuals who made the products people gobble up so effective. It's like saying wow, those pyramids are great, and they never would exist without Pharaoh. Yeah, that may be true, but really, other people helped.

He was prominent by choice, and for business reasons; when Steve Jobs returned to Apple, to bring it back from the brink of death, he brought some new technologies and new marketing strategies, and some savvy business techniques. But, like his decision to cut Apple's philanthropic giving (and never resume it), these were not wheel-inventions. They were great forward thinking steps in the ever-higher climb towards technological Valhalla, but really what did he do? The iPod, iPhone, iPad, and Mac Books are all great products, but they all represent brands of products that have been made by other companies, many times cheaper and better. What Apple excelled at, beyond creating a whole new class of genericized trademarks, was protecting the market share they won by viciously blocking any cross-platform interaction. As an outsider, with an mp3 player, smart phone, tablet and laptop, it looks a little bit like a high-tech gang, where you have to have something with an 'i' on it to get in, or you may as well take your ball and go home. Never mind the higher quality and lower cost of some non-i products.

So what is Steve Jobs' true legacy? It is undeniable that he has left a mark, and he participated in one of the greatest technological run-ups in human history. But lately? Lately he's been a champion of consumerism, of corporate person-hood, of making money and protecting market share, and damn the cost to small business, potential innovation, and individuals. In my mind, at least, Steve Jobs' legacy is slick marketing of a product line in constant flux because features and technologies are withheld for the 'next generation', where the brand name sneakers of two generations ago are replaced with several hundred dollar technologies that children are taught to covet from infancy (if you think I'm exaggerating, just search "baby iphone" online).

At the same time, The United States finds itself at a rare moment; The Occupy Wall Street movement is gaining momentum nationally, and people are standing up for human rights of corporate rights. The people at the bottom are finally questioning why the people at the top are getting so far away. But everyone has paused, to marvel at the passing of Steve Jobs. It is indisputable that Jobs left his mark on history, but I am more interested in the history being made now, today, on the streets of American cities, by the people who work minimum wage jobs for 28 hours to buy an iPhone, or 69 hours to buy an iPad. Steve Jobs helped create the personal computer, but he didn't do it alone. He did, however, make himself a household name. But I didn't think we celebrated people for becoming world-renowned former CEOs.

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