Steve Jobs goes. The reality distortion field stays.
Yes, I know—de mortuis nil nisi bonum. But although a kind of secular beatification process seems to have started already, so far Steve est non mortuus.
I don’t have much to say here. Just that Jobs was great for bad reasons; was brilliant in achieving the wrong ends. I am not really blaming him or judging him personally. What’s wrong about his life is what’s wrong with the culture.
In his early years it seemed that he would be not a cultural icon but a cultural dropout. He was born in California, in the thick of the baby boom, 1955, and came of age in the early 70s—when all the hippie, counter-culture stuff was happening. In 1974 he started working at Atari as a technician, not as a career move (he had quit college after a single semester) but to save money for a trip to India, to find himself. He had more than the usual reasons to feel lost: He was the biological son of a Syrian grad student named Abdulfattah Jandali, had been given up for adoption by his grad student mother, had been raised by a Mr. and Mrs. Jobs of Mountain View, Ca. (This is as good a story as Citizen Kane—it’s just that people don’t yet see the Kane-like dark side of the ending.)
He came back from the ashrams wearing a saffron robe, his head shaven. He used LSD. He was in America but not of it. He “took the red pill”—as they say in the Matrix—with almost everything he did.
And … did some guru cheat him? Con him out of his money? Seduce his girlfriend? Did he have an epiphany and think: I can do this; I can be the guru, the wolf amid the dumb fat sheep, and not just in some shitty ashram?
Whatever did happen, Silicon Valley and the corporate world seemed to gratify his psychological needs better than Buddhism could. Maybe he never stopped taking the red pill. But he started selling the blue pill. That’s what you do when you’re in business to win. The twist was that he disguised the blue pill as a red one. His famous “1984” ad was all about that.
He seemed to have a guru’s (or dictator’s) fascination with mass psychology, and I think it is fair to say that he studied it and learned to exploit popular weaknesses thoroughly. The name and the logo of his company, Apple, was and remains a joke on us all: He sold temptation. He was the serpent. We were the benighted impulsive savages who could not resist the shiny, costly, unnecessary fruit he dangled before us.
And we didn’t mind being taken in like this. Far from it—Apple’s ridiculously high profit margins reflect Jobs’s mass-hypnotic ability to make us see a $500 value in something that costs $250 to build, in an otherwise low-margin industry.
So basically, he built cool but optional, luxury stuff, and got us to buy it for much more than it was really worth. It helped that he knew how to leap years ahead of others in his industry in a single bound, had a good grasp of what people would covet, could spark new markets to life, and so forth. But he was above all a master of profiting from human frailty, not a maker of things or ideas that were essential or socially constructive. His greatest business success, the iPhone, is a media platform that glues us to its screen, and in so doing separates us mentally from each other—and from slower, wiser patterns of thought—even more perniciously than TV and computers have done. There are so many other, more humane directions in which his creativity could have taken him.
The current celebration of his life and work should seem pitiful to future generations. But I wonder: Will the tightening grip of Jobsian gadgetry on the human “mindshare”— as Jobs coldly calls it—leave future generations with enough autonomy even to make such a judgement? Will shiny portable media platforms and fake counter-culture marketing tricks accomplish what gurus and dictators never could?
Originally published August 24, 2011.