Nowadays it’s the name of a recently ascended deity. I’m surprised that we were not given a public holiday to celebrate Steve Jobs life, so great was the eulogising. The praise was universally gushing, the fervour religious in tone and the fact checking none existent. Let’s look at the facts.
People who invent stuff benefit us all. As the Guardian pointed out, Jobs could at least claim to have invented himself. Beyond that he didn’t actually create anything much. What he did was make dirty things shiny. He was a polisher and a salesman. It also isn’t really true that he made us use computers in our own homes. Bill Gates did that with Windows 95. Jobs was, by all accounts, a complete control freak and a very persuasive man. He got what he wanted. He wanted lots of money. The wealth he amassed sits with his executors right now. If he gave money to charity, it must have been in secret. Compare that to the much maligned Bill Gates who isn’t just spending his wealth on charity, he’s managing the spend and publicising it, thereby encouraging others to do likewise.
What then is Jobs’ legacy? We’ve a generation of people who have been obfuscated from learning anything much about how stuff works, who have lost the use of the other fingers on their hands because only one can be used and who expect everything to be massively overpriced. He fed our collective obsession with status. I was a Mac user for a while. There was a time when it did some stuff much better than other personal computers. Those times are long gone. The Mac is basically an overpriced machine, the ipod an mp3 player and the iphone an exercise in accesorisation. What’s the point of thousands of apps to do stuff when only one browser plugin was required instead? Obviously, I’m talking about Flash here. He didn’t give the consumer what they wanted, he told them what they wanted, he persuaded them what they wanted. Jobs’ real legacy is producing an anti-mugging device. No-one will ever mug me for my phone because it doesn’t come from Shiny Shiny Land.
The computer revolution has had many many players involved and has been a long time coming. It was not dependent on any one individual. Animated films were not going to stay stuck at the pre-War cartoon level forever but for Jobs. Whilst one should not speak ill of the dead, obituaries should include critical analysis. All those Apple employees who now worship at the church of St Jobs are actually just preserving their career portfolios. Here was a man who came along, sold other people’s products, amassed a vast fortune, didn’t appear to care about his factories’ conditions (child labour, environmental poisonings and unusually high suicide rates) and actively dumbed down an industry which should be liberating us all.
Macs are used by two types of people. There are those who have been in the habit of using them ever since the period when they outshone other work tools in certain industries, notably graphics and film. Fair enough. Most users those buy them because of what economists call ostentatious purchasing. Look at me, I’ve got an Apple product, I’m special. Iphones are used because a massive advertising campaign persuades an ignorant public that it is the only tool in town.
Many are now debating whether Apple will continue to flourish or whether it will wilt and die. The more interesting question is whether consumers will allow themselves to continue to be treated as meaningless cash till fillers or whether people will start to learn how stuff works.