Dec 1 2011

Steve Jobs and the Cult of the CEO

Like Da Vinci or the Dalai Lama—only better

Steve JobsSeveral labor unions came together on October 5 in support of the Occupy Wall Street protests, leading to a march of thousands in downtown Manhattan. Populist MSNBC host Ed Schultz was live on the scene—but devoted the top of his broadcast to the breaking news that Apple Computers founder Steve Jobs had just died.

It made for an incongruous TV moment: a labor-friendly host in front of a boisterous anti-corporate crowd, joining with Bloomberg pundit Jonathan Alter to pay tribute to a billionaire CEO.

“He was one of the great figures of American history,” explained Alter. Schultz added: “This protest here tonight, it was made possible by his innovation. It was made possible by the very things that, you know, he created.”

Schultz’s tribute was just the tip of the iceberg. “Steve Jobs remade the world as completely as any single human being ever has,” explained Lev Grossman and Harry McCracken in Time (10/17/11). “The genius of Jobs,” they went on, “is that while Jobs understood us completely, he wasn’t like us. He was better.”

“In the pantheon of American innovators, nobody comes close to the defining legacy of Steve Jobs,” wrote Harold Evans in Newsweek (10/10/11).

On television the hero worship was, if anything, deeper. ABC Nightline anchor Bill Weir (10/5/11) declared, “He was our Edison, our Disney, our Da Vinci.” That night’s broadcast was dedicated to “a visionary who changed the way we live, work and play, the man who gave us products we love and pointed the way to a future that he alone seemed able to see.”

On NBC Nightly News (10/6/11), Brian Williams hailed Jobs as a man who “gave us something to point to with pride. He gave us the icons and the fonts and shuffles and swipes of our modern lives.” NBC’s Anne Thompson chimed in that Jobs “didn’t just change the way we communicate. With his keen eye for design and a sleek pair of white earbuds, he made his customers cool.”

On the Today show, former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw enthused: “You know, four or five hundred years from now, maybe even longer that that, they’ll look back and Steve Jobs will be one of the defining figures of the technology that has absolutely transformed the world. It’s created another universe that we could not have anticipated.” Brokaw added that Jobs “in a secular way, he was a terrific spiritual leader of our time. He was the kind of Dalai Lama of personal computers.”

Even before his death, Jobs was cast (Newsweek, 9/5/11) as a “wholly authentic” hero, “a supercool billionaire, the dropout son of the early ’70s counterculture whose seminal text is The Whole Earth Catalog.” While raising some questions about privacy, the piece summed up: “We know the world, and each other, better because of him. With his Apple Mac he managed, in the words of Walt Whitman, to ‘unscrew the locks from the doors.’ He precipitated an enlightenment.”

Sure, Apple is a massively successful company. But what exactly did Steve Jobs make? To many technology experts, the answer is not much.

University of Vermont professor Thomas Streeter assessed the Apple legacy in a piece for the In These Times website (10/13/11):

The Apple II was neither invented by Jobs nor was it the friendliest computer of its day. (Think Xerox Alto, or Commodore PET.) Credit for the mouse goes to Douglas Engelbart, and the Xerox Star sold with a mouse as the primary interface two years before the Mac. There were digital music players, smart phones and tablets long before the iPod, iPhone and iPad. The digital sale of music was taking place at least by 1998 (google, years before iTunes followed suit. And Jobs was never a programmer or an engineer, anyway. Apple employees did that stuff for him.

But to Jobs’ admirers, his lack of technological breakthroughs was only further proof of his genius, his role as somewhat mystical futurist. As Evans put it in Newsweek (10/10/11), Jobs “was not an Edison. He was not equipped to make a breakthrough in pure technology in the sense of circuits and frequencies…. His gift to humanity was an imaginative apogee of form and function. He had the vision of a seer.”

Grossman and McCracken in Time agreed (10/10/11): “Jobs did not invent things, but he recognized their power before anyone else did. He knew what Xerox had better than that company did, and he plundered it gleefully.”

One of Apple’s core innovations—if one wants to call it that—was that it pursued a closed system approach to a computing industry that had often prized openness. As playwright Mike Daisey argued in a rare critical piece about Jobs in the corporate media (New York Times, 10/6/11), Apple has made

the computing experience of its users less free, more locked down and more tightly regulated than ever before. All of Apple’s iDevices—the iPod, iPhone and iPad—use operating systems that deny the user access to their workings. Users cannot install programs themselves; they are downloaded from Apple’s servers, which Apple controls and curates, choosing at its whim what can and can’t be distributed, and where anything can be censored with little or no explanation.

Many early critics of Apple’s media offerings on its iTunes platform pointed out that the company was selling material with serious limitations for sharing or copying material—a far more restrictive environment than other online retailers.

But again, to Jobs’ fans, this was another aspect of his genius. Jobs’ official biographer Walter Isaacson, writing in Time (10/17/11), chalked all this up to Jobs’ “quest for perfection,” adding that

using an Apple product could be as sublime as walking in one of the Zen gardens of Kyoto that Jobs loved, and neither experience was the result of worshipping at the altar of openness or letting a thousand flowers bloom. Sometimes it’s nice to be in the hands of a control freak.

The peculiar thing about Apple’s domination of the music and video markets is that the company has essentially convinced consumers to pay more for material they could get elsewhere. And while early tech writers warned of massive Internet service providers like AOL forcing users into a “walled garden” of sites and shopping malls owned by the company, Apple has actually managed to do it, as Time (10/17/11) noted:

Once you owned an Apple device, you filled it with movies, music and apps from Apple’s online stores. Jobs had created a closed technological universe of gleaming Copernican perfection, and everybody wanted to live there.

The Internet era did not invent the idea of the benevolent CEO or the idealistic corporation, but Steve Jobs nonetheless embodied the notion that a boss can be controlling, punitive—yet also somehow liberating. Accounts of Jobs’ personal cruelty with employees are widespread—but can be turned into one more sign of genius. In the New York Times (10/29/11), Isaacson wrote that “Jobs could be petulant and unkind in dealing with other people,” but that this only served to motivate them: “He could size people up, understand their inner thoughts, cajole them, intimidate them, target their deepest vulnerabilities and delight them at will.”

Newsweek’s Alan Deutchsman (10/10/11) characterized Jobs’ management style as “brutal” and “cruel”—but in a good way:

He found that by delivering brutal putdowns of his co-workers he could test the strength of their conviction in their own ideas…. He found that many of the most brilliant engineers and creative types actually responded well to cruel criticism, since it reinforced their own secret belief that they weren’t living up to their vaunted potential…. It often inspired them to do the best work of their careers before ultimately they could no longer take the brutal psychological toll.

Jobs’ Apple, Deutschman wrote, took “the thesis of business and the antithesis of counterculture and create[d] the synthesis of Apple: the idea that a company can promote revolutionary social change and that workers can be artists expressing their creativity.”

Well, some workers. As Daisey’s piece in the New York Times pointed out,

Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads.

Daisey’s one-man show about Steve Jobs was reviewed favorably in the Times (10/18/11), where it was noted that when the playwright visited Foxconn for research,

some of the workers he meets are as young as 13, and because of the repetitive nature of the labor, their hands often become deformed and useless within a decade, rendering them unemployable.

Perhaps it was no surprise to learn that Jobs’ actual politics did not always sound as if they were guided by any countercultural notions. One typically worshipful piece in Newsweek (9/5/11) mentioned that Apple’s astounding profitability left it with $76 billion in cash and assorted investments—“an awesome sum thought to be parked in an obscure subsidiary” in Nevada in order to avoid paying corporate or capital-gains taxes.

A passage in Isaacson’s biography highlighted by the Huffington Post (10/20/11) has Jobs warning Barack Obama that he was “headed for a one-term presidency,” in part due to his administration’s allegedly anti-business agenda. Jobs, Isaacson reported, contrasted the ease of opening a factory in China with the “regulations and unnecessary costs” that manufacturers face in the United States.

It’s true that it’s hard to hire a 13-year-old to work in a U.S. factory. And perhaps the costs associated with preventing crippling work-related injuries are “unnecessary”—from the point of view of a billionaire CEO.


Editor’s Note:On March 16, 2012, the public radio show Marketplace exposed major elements of Mike Daisey’s account of his investigation of the Foxconn manufacturing plant to be fabricated and/or conflated, and This American Life retracted its report that featured Daisey as its main source. The descriptions of meeting with underaged workers and a worker with a disabled hand appear to be among the parts of his story that Daisey made up.