Worshipping Steve Jobs

When Steve Jobs died in October at the age of 56, the entire American media establishment went into full-scale mourning — black-crape overdrive. Jobs is gone, and as with 9/11, we’ll never be the same. Woe is us. So went the refrain. Techies everywhere dropped what they were doing and cast their tearful eyes toward the heavens.

No more shiny digitized gadgets at regular, predictable intervals. No more instant technological obsolescence for whatever was. No more breathless oohing and ahing from the transfixed multitudes at staged presentations. No more hyped promotional campaigns to dazzle consumers.

Excuse me for feeling underwhelmed. Jobs was a decent guy at heart, I’m sure (although many acquaintances regarded him as a creepy control freak). I regret he died before his time. But the whole aspect of his passing carries an aura of wretched excess about it, something comparable to the media-generated period of national lamentation that accompanied the death of canonized news commentator Tim Russert.

In the case of Jobs, here are some of the superlatives being bandied about: “magician,” “genius,” “master showman,” “digital dream grantor,” “living legend,” “larger than life,” and “one of the greatest chief executives of his time.” The apple of everyone’s eye (sorry) has been portrayed as a combination of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford, with smidgens of Frank Lloyd Wright and P. T. Barnum on the side. No wonder Bill Gates was jealous.

Enough already! Jobs, after all, was simply a computer geek-cum-entrepreneurial inventor possessing an occasional flair for the dramatic, nothing more. He created some interesting, attractive, saleable gadgetry, more user-friendly than those of his competitors by all accounts. Yet the impact of him and his contemporaries on our world has been anything but benign, and it won’t bring on a golden age of economic prosperity, flowering democracy, or all-round good fellowship, despite what Jobsian acolytes say.

Let’s look at the adverse results of the computer revolution Jobs did so much to advance, beginning with the collapse of the “old” economy and the disappearance of the jobs, industrial and otherwise, that sustained the American middle class for two generations after World War II.

This development was not by any means all due to technology; federal trade and tax policies, weakened labor unions, and corporate outsourcing (including, incidentally, by Apple itself) contributed heavily. Nevertheless, new technology created the means by which US business could grow and profit without hiring people. And the relatively few jobs produced in the process of “creative destruction,” the fabled high-tech jobs of the future (mostly in telemarketing, it turns out), have not replaced what was lost, either in raw numbers or combined wages.

A case can also be made that technology moguls like Steve Jobs paved the way for the international financial crisis, which was inextricably linked to instantaneous computerized bank transactions, often self-activated. Computer modeling and investment software programs that few understood and none could control allowed for the wide dissemination of securitized debt based on derivatives trading in such exotica as credit-default swaps and mortgage-backed securities. Without the computer, this could not have taken place to the extent it did. The rest, as they say, is history.

The innovations of Jobs and his colleagues that enabled the financial sector’s reckless behavior simultaneously provided corporate America at large with the perverse ability to glide through the ensuing Great Recession by cutting labor costs with little impact on productivity or the bottom line. When the inevitable downturn came, companies simply threw millions out of work, substituted technology for people, and kept rolling along.

Then, there’s the detrimental impact the Jobs generation and its dubious achievements have had on the environment. Devotees of everything digital claim to be “green;” their gadgetry, they argue, saves forests from being depleted to produce paper products. Left unsaid is that the output of Silicon Valley inundates landfills everywhere with tons of obsolete plastic junk.

But beyond that, rampant computerization requires an endless supply of electricity; those glowing screens don’t power themselves. And how do we produce at least half of that electricity in America? The answer is coal-fired power plants, the dirtiest source of generation and the most harmful to the surface terrain in terms of fuel acquisition. Forget the “clean coal” commercials; that’s just industry propaganda.

As the children of Jobs (and Gates) convert everything in sight to digitization, they remain in denial about their indirect assault on the natural world. Even the batteries powering their smart phones and other gizmos exact a cost, joining non-biodegradable plastic in building ever-expanding waste dumps. And don’t get me started on the ugliness of cell-phone towers.

Meanwhile, something really valuable is disappearing from our cultural inheritance: the printed book. Technological innovations like the e-book split us off, in a very real sense, from our intellectual past. What went before (that is, the bound, printed page) is made to seem old-fashioned, outmoded, irrelevant — in short, not worth preserving. It’s not too far a stretch to suppose that the NYPD’s wanton destruction of the Occupy Wall Street library during their retaking of Zuccotti Park was made easier by the growing disrespect for traditional books among those immersed in the new forms of information and communications technology.

The book is being subjected to a classic two-fer in the Jobsian era. On the one hand, austerity-driven public libraries are adopting shorter hours and implementing shrinking book budgets; the fewer dollars available for purchases are going not for printed materials, but for computers and software. My own local library brags that it has the Kindle and urges us to come in and try it. Who needs books?

At the same time, outlets for the sale of books are fast disappearing under the pressure of the new technology. This leaves the reader in a genuine quandary. In the absence of bookstores, where do you go to browse and examine new releases — or learn about old ones? You may be able to purchase infinite titles for your Kindle, but how do you know you want them?

Steve Jobs and other wizards of the keyboard never thought of that eventuality. Ironically, one of the prerogatives of being a “visionary” is not actually having to consider the future; you just bring it on and let someone else worry about the consequences.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2012


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