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Is Steve Jobs’ Life An Inspiration To All Of Us? A Meditation On The Difference Between Having A Life And A Lifestyle

October 7, 2011, 3:18 pm

Great minds so think alike. Following the death of Steve Jobs, Historiann asks whether the outpouring of grief over the death of this brilliant and peculiar man is yet another symptom of anxiety over national decline. Oh yes — and, since our friend brings up the exploitation of Chinese labor by Apple —  I would add that Apple is a potent nexus for the ambivalent historical relationship that American politicians and manufacturers have with China.  Apple products are one of the very few consumer objects that people around the world seem to crave, much as American merchants have craved unfettered access to Chinese consumers since the 1870s. Simultaneously, Chinese consumers have craved the American consumer culture that is shamelessly knocked off there and sold to billions of people from Beijing to Times Square. An iPhone also closes the circle between a Cold War capitalist model and 21st century neo-liberalism:  it is produced by cheap foreign labor, sold domestically and to elites around the world,  and the profits are almost exclusively siphoned back to the United States.  It’s not only because of his marketing genius that Jobs is being compared to Henry Ford.

If Historiann spoke to my cynical self, Roxie’s World — while capturing the dark side of Apple — spoke to my more sentimental self:

My typist suspects she might never have become a blogger had Apple products not totally transformed her relationship to technology. The computer was nothing more than a glorified and often baffling typewriter until the day Goose brought a new Mac home from school and gave Moose permission to play with it while she went off to take a shower. Twenty minutes later, Moose had made her first iPhoto slideshow. That was the day she became a Mac person, having experienced for herself what folks meant when they rhapsodized about how intuitive the machines were and how perfect they were for working with images. In less than twenty minutes, she got it and has never looked back.

Precisely.  And, as Cathy Davidson notes at HASTAC, many of us “got” something else: there was a whole new world opening up on the internet that was being driven by the young and their ideas, and that some of us who were no longer young could get there too through a MacBook Pro.  Suddenly, technology and intellectual work fused. No matter how far you were from the Metropolis — You. Could. Get. There.  I remember thinking when I had my first commenter (that was you, Flavia):  ”$hit.  It’s true.  If you write it, they will come.

When I bought my iPad, someone asked me what I would use it for, and I said with no irony:  ”I’m not sure, but my guess is that I will figure it out.”  That was true, and spoke to a seismic shift in my relationship to technology. You buy a toaster because you want to make toast; you buy a car because you need to drive to work; you buy a new Apple product because you don’t know yet what it will make or where it will take you.  That’s the God’s truth. Like the iPhone (I am on my second one, which makes a total of four for the household over the last three years), I find new uses for my iPad all the time.  There are the Kindle and Nook apps; there is the way it can be used as a radio (I love me the Desi Radio app that brings me the latest Bollywood soundtracks in the evening.) Last winter, I realized that I could edit a conference paper up to the last minute, as I always do, and then not have to find the business center to print it before I gave the talk.  More recently, the HBO Go app made it possible for me not to have an aneurysm over the persnickety quality of Xfinity’s on demand service, which adds and subtracts episodes of shows almost randomly.

Apple would never do such a thing. Apple is Reliable. Everything Works. And when Apple fails to met your expectations, they Apologize. To Apple, consumers are the point. The focus on the consumer has been the source of immense profits, hence the love fest that erupted upon the announcement that Jobs had passed over, whereas hardly anyone noticed that Derrick Bell, who altered legal studies forever, had died the same day.

My affection for the shiny objects Apple sells does, however, bring me to the part about Steve Jobs where we might want to interrupt the celebration of his life once again.  Probably more than any other innovator, Jobs has made it possible to confuse one’s life with one’s lifestyle; he has made an Apple lifestyle appear universal when it can, in fact, be possessed by only a select group of people; and he has created the illusion that prosperity and grace (in the form of beautiful, expensive objects) can define a moment in history that is characterized by inequality and violence.  How was it that news casts could follow the Jobs obituary with reports on the spread of the massive anti-capitalist protests that began three weeks ago without connecting the world Apple made with — well, the world Apple and other corporations like it have made? When I was in South Africa two years ago, I periodically loaned my iPod out to South African friends who had good jobs compared to their peers, but did not have the disposable income to own anything Apple at all. Technology is far more expensive most places in the world than it is in the US.  There is also dramatically less access to money outside North America and Europe.  Cell phones have altered the landscape of the African continent more generally, but almost none of my friends even had a phone contract — they bought minutes by the rand — much less a smart phone of any kind.

This crack in the Jobs biomythography widens as his exhortations, most famously in his 2005  Stanford commencement speech, to follow one’s inner voice were broadcast over and over.  Adopted, a college dropout, fired from Apple and then returning in triumph, Jobs has been a key example of successful autodidacticism among critics of higher ed who believe that most students would do better if they were to educate themselves (through an internet shaped in part by Apple) rather than spend their parents’ savings and mortgage their own futures for a liberal arts BA.  But it is Jobs’ pragmatism in the face of his own death from which, as a culture, we are expected to draw the most important lessons. “If you live each day as it was your last,” he notes, “Someday you will most certainly be right…And since then, for thirty years, I have looked in the mirror in the morning and asked myself, ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?  And whenever the answer has been no for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.  Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.  Because almost everything, all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure, these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving what is only truly important.”

This spoke to me on a very deep level, as I am sure it did to many intellectuals. As Jobs exhorts us to do, one day I started “connecting the dots” differently, trusting that they would lead me somewhere, anywhere, else. Long-time readers of this blog recall that this lesson (“I know I need to change something”) was one the Radical learned in a hard way. But it occurred to me to wonder whether the networks broadcasting this clip were really aware of how few Americans, much less people anywhere in the world, this idea of choosing a life speaks to.  Arguably, the engine of the Tea Party movement (other than Dick Armey’s $$) is that a swathe of Americans who believe profoundly in choice, so much so as to have cultivated eclectic ideas about political economy that elevate personal liberty as the sine qua non of citizenship, do not think that looking in the mirror and making a decision to live differently is going to do the trick.  Similarly, could this graduation speech — utterly suitable to an Ivy League graduation — have been given at a community college, an Ag school, or even the University of California campus down the highway?  I think not.  One wonders even whether those Stanford students in the crowd, six months shy of paying their first student loan installment, really have choices.

One wonders whether, when we listen to Jobs’ philosophy, whether his genius was to be in touch with what we wanted, not necessarily what we could have.  We want to be people with choices, but so few of us are.  Many of us look in the mirror and we are in the same homeless shelter where we went to bed; we are getting ready to go a high school with no gym, no art, no music, and certainly no calligraphy.  We will go back to our jobs as waitresses, grocery clerks, Walmart managers, mothers on workfare, and math teachers in a school about to be closed by No Child Left Behind.  We will be looking in the mirror we are polishing in a fancy hotel and feel the hand of the President of the World Bank up our skirt; we will be looking in the face of the umpteenth person we have interviewed with since getting fired in 2008 and see our own failure mirrored there.  We will look in the mirror one last time on our way out the door of our foreclosed house.

Jobs’ philosophy stood him well, and brought wonderful things into the world. These things have made me a better and more interesting person, ushering me into a world of technology, ideas and choices I could not have imagined before I took my first MacBook Pro out of the box.  But the world is not the same as it was when Jobs dropped out of Reed to seek his fortune, or even when he was fired from the company he founded, already a millionaire.  It will take many more leaps of imagination to transform that dream from a lifestyle — that can be purchased in a gleaming Apple store — to a life.

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