06 October 2011

"Steve Jobs," the Mythology

It is worth listening to what commentators are saying about Steve Jobs today, upon his death, for the sake of thinking about "Steve Jobs," the mythology.

According to Matt Bai, "Mr. Jobs understood, intuitively, that Americans were breaking away from the last era’s large institutions and centralized decision-making..."  Really, Matt Bai?  Are Americans really breaking away from large institutions and centralized decision-making?  The last time I looked, for example, the U.S. military was an institution that has remained frighteningly large.  So too, the decisions to torture people (by the Bush-Cheney administration) and the decisions to use high tech drones to kill people (by the Obama administration)--I think those are very much cases of "centralized decision-making."  What am I missing?  And to give one more example: when oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months in 2010, BP (formerly British Petroleum) seemed like a very "large corporation," and I am not sure how its actions represent a break from "centralized decision-making."  Put very simply, Bai's comments seem to me to be meaningless--and romantic--cant. 

And here's one more comment from Bai on Jobs (along with a quote from an Apple product commercial): "This was the underlying point of 'think different' — that our choices were no longer dictated by the whims of huge companies..."  Uh, how exactly does Apple's sales of all its various I-Things count as consumer freedom from "the whims of huge companies"?  Please explain that to me.

The very worst comment I heard all day was from some reporter on our local NPR station--I did not catch her name--who spoke of how Apple's products had "liberated" her.  I am sorry, but neither Apple nor Steve Jobs are notable for contributing much to human "liberation."  For that, it would be much more appropriate to pay attention to the death, on the same day, of the Reverand Fred Shuttlesworth, someone who suffered beatings and jailing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  Reverand Shuttlesworth really did produce greater freedom in the world.  Let us honor and remember him.

And what, by contrast, was the genuine achievement of the mythologized figure, "Steve Jobs"?  Nothing less or more than this: he was a modern master of the fashion system that has been a characteristic feature of modern capitalist societies since, at least, the Tulipmania of the Dutch Republic of the 1600s.

In such a fashion system, a good "in fashion" has value as a symbol of status, but because it is purchaseable (that is, its ownership is not legally restricted to elites), non-elites purchase the good.  As a result, the good becomes common, and eventually its price drops, precisely because its mass ownership devalues it as a status symbol.  The route to further great profits is to introduce a new product, one marked by a distinction from its predecessors, that becomes the new in-fashion status-good.   And after it starts to sell, the process continues, generating great profits at high margins from the early adopters, and then more great profits, through mass sales at lower margins, from the mass adopters, whose mass consuming thereby degrades the status of the good--and leaves an opening for the next in-fashion good to be introduced. 

"Steve Jobs," I salute you: you were the unsurpassed master of this capitalist fashion system in your lifetime.

The Slow Blog movement encourages further reading; in this case:
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (1957).


  1. Great article.

    Let us not forget about the mass suicides, forced labor and draconian living conditions at the Foxxcon compound in China where Mac products are assembled. Whenever Steve Jobs "touched the lives" of Americans with a new product, labor overseas was paying a dire price for higher demand.


  2. Absolutely Michael. See also: http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/10/18/theater/reviews/the-agony-and-the-ecstasy-of-steve-jobs-review.html?scp=1&sq=Jobs%20Theater&st=cse