The Powers of Observation

Apple and tech and me

Legacy

1. “Bottom Feeding”

Many of my colleagues in the Mac/iPhone/iPad developer community had a deep, personal connection to Steve Jobs, which they expressed on Twitter and in blogs immediately after his death. I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’m grateful for it.

Along the way, I saw a number of attacks on those who didn’t stick to the positive: Daniel Jalkut called it “bottom feeding”, and Jeff LaMarche called it “cruel”, “hurtful”, and “little”.

Personally? The unwavering praise combined with a circling of the wagons made me uncomfortable, and awoke my contrarian nature.

Do you think the man who started phone calls with strangers by swearing at them would begrudge a realistic portrayal of himself after death? Articles on public figures, including obituaries, don’t omit flaws and failures. The page-long article from the October 8th issue of The Economist called “The Magician”, for example, has, amid the tribute, a single-sentence caveat in it.

We haven’t had our caveat yet.

2. “Mourning a Billionaire”

Here’s a tweet from Jana Olsen on October 6th: “Kind of weird how we all went from talking about a huge protest against big business to mourning a billionaire.”

The Occupy Wall Street movement started its encampment in New York City on September 17, over two weeks before Steve Jobs died. His death prompted criticism of the group from both the right and the left. The right made fun of the protesters for the contradiction of protesting the actions of the richest 1% while grieving the death of a very rich one. The left hectored the protestors for feeling any sympathy for Jobs at all.

I’m a lifelong Mac developer. I’m also as liberal as they come, and it’s becoming harder and harder to reconcile the two. On the one hand: the Apple vision of ever-sleeker, ever more useful devices connected to a burgeoning global network of information. On the other: the end of the Western way of life when the oil dries up with no realistic substitute. On the one hand: a thriving consumer market and developer ecosystem providing a good standard of living for many of my colleagues and friends. On the other: deepening unemployment and inequality, fostered by a corrupt media and political class.

3. “Steve Jobs Didn’t”

The always insightful Horace Dediu wrote a clever article using the deflation of some of the myths attributed to Steve Jobs to point out his true accomplishments.

I’m going to be less original, and point out the things that he really didn’t do:

1. He didn’t challenge the entrenched, monopolistic power of most of the industries Apple got involved with. While the big music labels are dying, that’s not Apple’s doing, and in some ways Apple helped prop them up temporarily by dragging them into the digital age. Apple has done nothing to disrupt the movie/television/cable industry that’s in the process of killing TiVo and Netflix. And the telephone carriers, while they can’t dictate phone models like they used to, still follow anti-consumer practices with impunity.

2. He didn’t break the glass ceiling or the tech industry boy’s club. The current Apple executive bios page contains no women. The parts of Apple that I saw had the same lopsided ratios of men to women in their engineering sections as the rest of the industry. I’m not without blame: when I was a hiring manager at Apple, I didn’t try hard enough to find qualified women candidates, and I’m sorry for that.

3. He didn’t help prepare the industry for the post-peak oil era. Bit more of a futuristic point than the others, and even more crazy-hard, but still true.

4. Perhaps most importantly in the near term, he didn’t challenge two great harmful industrial trends, the outsourcing that has all but destroyed America’s manufacturing base and jobs, and the employment of foreign companies that cut corners and endanger workers in order to keep prices low.

You can argue that none of these things were his responsibility, that he had his own company to run and his own vision to follow (which he did extremely well). You can argue that these problems are simply insurmountable or just the Way Things Are—many do.

The reason I think it’s worthwhile to bring these things up in the context of Steve Jobs, in the context of our Mac community, at this very moment, is that our praise of Steve Jobs brings it all to a head: if he was so innovative and unorthodox and uncompromising, if he could achieve the impossible (if he was, as the Onion snarked, the “last American who knew the fuck what he was doing“), what does that say about how we view these problems when we give him a pass on them? They’re worse than impossible? They’re not anyone’s responsibility?

Or as a beginning, maybe this, trite as it is: there’s a lot of bad shit coming down the pike, and we can’t rely on our heroes to save us from it.

Written by subjectiveobserver

October 8, 2011 at 7:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

19 Responses

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  1. Greenpeace successfully pressured Apple into making more environmentally friendly products and packaging, and doing so publicly, not because Apple was the worst offender but because it is a trendsetter which can and should be held to a higher standard. It would be good to see similar ethical lobbying in other fields. If the richest, highest-margin company in the field can’t afford to make a serious effort for workers’ rights and long-term sustainability, then who will?

    Jens Ayton

    October 8, 2011 at 9:18 am

    • Greenpeace didn’t pressure apple into anything, If anything Apple pressured Greenpeace into actually seeing what apple was already doing, without make sweeping publicity claims about it.

      Jobs to Greenpeace at a stockholder meeting:

      “I think your organization particularly depends too much on principle and not enough on fact. You guys rate people based on what people say their plans are in the distant future, not what they are doing today. I think you put way too much weight on these glorified principles and way too little weight on science and engineering. It would be very helpful if your organization hired a few more engineers and actually entered into dialog with companies to find out what they are really doing and not just listen to all the flowery language when in reality most of them aren’t doing anything.”

      http://tidbits.com/article/8986

      And on Apple’s earlier response to Greenpeace:

      http://tidbits.com/article/8974

      Kevin

      October 8, 2011 at 1:52 pm

  2. I’m sorry but nobody should be looking specifically for female candidates. You should be looking for the most qualified candidate. If that’s a white male, so be it, if not, that’s great too.

    Jonathan Badeen

    October 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

    • Women face more hurdles than men in this industry. Saying, “Everything should be equal” doesn’t make it so.

      subjectiveobserver

      October 8, 2011 at 10:08 am

  3. I took Daniel and Jeff’s comments more as dismay that more critical authors would choose that particular time to levy their comments about Steve Jobs. Perhaps it’s a matter of respect; of letting those who grieve do so.

    There is considerable evidence that Jobs was really an ‘accidental billionaire.’ Aside from arrogance, he showed none of the usual excesses of the schmucks against whom the protestors are railing. The only similarity between Jobs and the Koch brothers is wealth.

    I would like to think that what Apple does and what we as developers do is to make tools that can be used for good or ill. The consumerism that it feeds is lamentable; but there are positive unintended consequences. What is the net effect? Who knows?

    Alan Duncan

    October 8, 2011 at 10:17 am

  4. This highlights the problem of associating yourself too much with an ideology when the reality is that the world is too complicated.

    I don’t think it was Steve Jobs’ responsibility to champion social causes and to fight injustices caused by capitalism. If anything he was a great advert for capitalism, it’s doubtful he would have been able to build the company that he did in many other places in the World.

    Damien

    October 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    • > This highlights the problem of associating yourself too much with an ideology when the reality is that the world is too complicated.

      It’s a valid criticism, but let’s see it from the other side: in a complex world, where a lot of self-interested groups (for me: political parties and leaders, for Apple: record companies et al) want you to do things their way for their own self-interest, it’s important to stick to your principles even when the going gets tough.

      subjectiveobserver

      October 8, 2011 at 5:27 pm

  5. A few observations:

    1. “Mourning a billionaire”: I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the Wall Street protestors is (apparently they aren’t sure themselves) apart from registering antipathy to the wealthy and powerful. Jobs was a billionaire. Should his wealth count against his extraordinary accomplishments or was his wealth a result of them? I take the latter view.

    2. “Glass ceiling”: Carly Fiorina was available, but the board opted to name Tim Cook. Is this a bad decision for Apple or the industry? Should the fact that she is a woman and has previous experience running a hardware company (HP) trump Cook’s strong record as COO and interim CEO?

    3. “Post-peak-oil”: I think the jury is still out on this one. Predictions of peak oil have (thus far) always been proven wrong by new advances in technology that allow the cheap extraction of reserves previously thought unobtainable (and that’s a market-driven, not a government-driven, development).

    4. Outsourcing of manufacturing: NeXT had its own manufacturing facilities in California, but never made good use of them. I’m not surprised Apple opted to go to China this time around; I suspect that’s the basis of Apple’s supply-chain/cost advantages that are allowing them to clean house with the iPad and iPhone. Do you really think it would be good for Apple, from a cost and efficiency standpoint, to repatriate its manufacturing?

    Kevin Walzer

    October 8, 2011 at 1:57 pm

  6. I wanted to address each of your points.

    1. De mortuis nil nisi bonum. is a Latin phrase which indicates that it is socially inappropriate to say anything negative about a (recently) deceased person.

    There is plenty of time to explore the many flaws of Jobs’. It is just socially deemed inappropriate for that time to be literally hours or just days after his death, given that there are so many positive contributions he did make.

    2. My take on the Occupy Wall Street is that this movement is about fairness in how our government treats most (99%) of its citizens. I don’t believe that most of the protestors begrudge people getting rich for working hard & creating popular products. They are not protesting outside of rich people’s houses. Steve Jobs may have been a great example of this. He took a $1 salary (since he didn’t need multi-million dollar salary). Much of his worth increase at Apple was due to his stock holdings’ value increasing — along with every other person that held Apple stock. OWS seems to focus on Wall Street because it is WS that has helped corrupt our political system, leading to rules that apply differently to them. Much of their money is not created by investing, rather trading and betting. They push money from one side of the table to the other and take a piece of it in the process, creating no new products or services — they are money changers. And they are now rewarded with some of the lowest tax rates possible (max of 15% on capital gains, and if they get a salary, Social Security limited to only first $100K of earnings), and then also have huge loopholes to reduce even that burden.

    And are you honestly pinning questions of oil shortages, unemployment and pay inequality, a corrupt political system on Steve Jobs? Thomas Edison was still around for the crash of 1929? Would you also like to blame him for not having fixed that as well? See point 1.

    3. Btw.. You forgot to add that he also didn’t create an everlasting peace in the middle east. Seriously, see point 1.

    If you want to take something away from this relative to our current situation, go back and read his 2005 commencement speech where he talks about clearing out the old to make way for the new.

    Politically, that means tossing out these old suckers (some of who have been in Congress longer than I’ve been alive, most of which have been in Congress my entire adulthood). Should these people, who helped create this mess, be the same ones to direct the next 20-30 years? I’m thinking not.

    There will be plenty of time to focus on the flaws of Steve Jobs’ management style, on how he interacted with people. Newsflash: He will continue to be dead for years to come. It just feels really inappropriate to focus the most negative aspects you can find just days after his death. It’s the wrong time.

    Mark Munz

    October 8, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    • > 1. De mortuis nil nisi bonum….It just feels really inappropriate to focus the most negative aspects you can find just days after his death. It’s the wrong time.

      I think the most spot-on criticism of this post is that I’m tone-deaf to that. I may very well be, and if it hurts people, I’m sorry. I address in the post why I think now is the time to say these things, but should I have waited a week, a month, three months? Maybe.

      subjectiveobserver

      October 8, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  7. Hi, Andrew. I’m also a Mac developer — I recognize your name from cocoa-dev — and I’m here via Daniel Jalkut’s retweet. Although I’m about to disagree with or at least question some things you say, I hope you won’t take this as a personal attack. I do take your point about excessive one-sided praise.

    > Along the way, I saw a number of attacks on those who didn’t stick to the positive:

    I think this characterization is a bit unfair. Jalkut and LaMarche were objecting to very specific behaviors, not failure to blindly worship.

    > Daniel Jalkut called it “bottom feeding”, and Jeff LaMarche called it “cruel”, “hurtful”, and “little”.

    I would like to see a bit more on this. Is the AP’s list of “7 products Steve Jobs got wrong” the kind of “caveat” that has been missing? Would you find it appropriate for an obituary of Jobs to include that list? Do you think the Gawker article (the one I assume LaMarche was referring to) restored balance to the post-Jobs discourse by urging us to stop “fellating” his memory?

    I believe Jalkut and LaMarche were objecting to the sensational exploiting of a famous man’s death — a person they happen to care about — purely for attention which would in turn generate revenue, and not with any intention of adding journalistic value. In other words, bottom feeding.

    > Personally? The unwavering praise combined with a circling of the wagons made me uncomfortable, and awoke my contrarian nature.

    I can appreciate this, especially coming from an Apple person.

    > Do you think the man who started phone calls with strangers by swearing at them would begrudge a realistic portrayal of himself after death?

    Although convenient for pointing out that Steve was not always Mr. Touchy Feely, this is a non sequitur. One can imagine, for example, a thin-skinned person who can dish out tough language but can’t take it.

    Maybe it isn’t Steve’s swearing so much that makes your point (which I agree with), but the fact that he was able to see himself from the reporter’s point of view?

    > Articles on public figures, including obituaries, don’t omit flaws and failures.

    Admittedly I haven’t researched this, but my gut feeling is that they do so all the time.

    > I’m going to be less original, and point out the things that he really didn’t do: […] [If Jobs] was so innovative and unorthodox and uncompromising, if he could achieve the impossible […], what does that say about how we view these problems when we give him a pass on them?

    A sobering list. It would be nice to see Apple do better. At the same time, this sounds to me a bit like what Lucy says to Schroeder in an old Peanuts cartoon. “If Beethoven was so great, why isn’t he on a bubble gum card?” Not everybody, even Steve, can be on a bubble gum card.

    > Or as a beginning, maybe this, trite as it is: there’s a lot of bad shit coming down the pike, and we can’t rely on our heroes to save us from it.

    That’s for sure.

    Andrew, it sounds like you’re heading toward, if not already in the middle of, a crisis of professional conscience. As a fellow Mac developer in a transitional phase myself, I wish you the best in figuring it out.

    –Andy

    Andy Lee

    October 8, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    • > Would you find it appropriate for an obituary of Jobs to include that list?

      The vast majority of the press articles about Jobs have been (and will be) laudatory. A tiny minority have gone a different route, and explored flaws instead of strengths. Like the proportion in the Economist article, if you consider the entirety of the press coverage Jobs’s collective obituary, that sounds about right to me.

      subjectiveobserver

      October 8, 2011 at 5:20 pm

      • In this case I don’t entirely disagree. I think it’s reasonable to expect a bio to say something like “Not all Jobs’s projects enjoyed the same success as the iPad. For example…”. It’s no disrespect to point out his track record wasn’t 100%; readers would probably find the information interesting, and that it adds something rather than detracts.

        On the other hand I’m not sure I’d make a separate article out of it, complete with catchy headline, and I distrust their motives in doing so barely a day after Jobs’s death.

        …I just now did a search and the New York Daily News takes the “7 products” headline another tasteless step further: “Steve Jobs dead: 7 products Apple founder got wrong amid successes that shaped tech industry”. I stand by my defense of Daniel’s term: bottom feeding.

        Andy Lee

        October 8, 2011 at 5:43 pm

  8. You make a lot of excellent points here and I think it’s healthy to challenge the deification of Steve Jobs. I particularly like the way you pointed out the outsourcing and the fact that there are few women in the industry, probably no more with him around than there were without him. I also think that it’s valuable to point out (gently) that we aren’t mourning him for being such a nice, kind person. While stories abound of many kind things that he’s done, that hasn’t been everyone’s experience of him. It’s not great to dwell on the negative but it bears mentioning.

    I think there are several points in this article where you take an unnecessarily critical or damning view. For instance, the thing about mourning a billionaire while Wall Street is “occupied”. Let’s be clear about two things: The Wall Street protests aren’t about how rich people are bad, and nobody is saying “I miss Steve Jobs because he was rich”. He may not be more deserving of remembrance because of his wealth, but he’s not less deserving either.

    I would also say that it’s valuable to ask how Steve Jobs made the world a better place, but it’s fair to ask that of anyone. How have any of us improved the situation of gender equality in your workplace? How have any of us improved the national job situation? He (like most people) was not a champion for every social and cultural dilemma, and it’s bad to pretend that he was. But he wasn’t the cause, either. It’s good to remind people that Steve Jobs wasn’t a hero in every realm of human endeavor, but he wasn’t exactly a villain, either.

    Healthy mourning means respecting the things someone accomplished, expressing a sense of loss for what might have happened if they’d lived longer and acknowledging how you’ll miss their unique presence in the world. It shouldn’t be about rewriting their history to make them seem like a saint or a demon. He did some amazing things, but it’s not fair to expect that he did all the amazing things.

  9. Your link there on “hectored” is a bizarre mischaracterization of Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s post.

    If there’s something you want to say, say it. Don’t pass it off as a spurious quote from someone who never said any such thing.

    Teresa Nielsen Hayden

    October 8, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    • I didn’t say he said it.

      My shorthand may have implied that, and if so, that’s my fault, and I apologize.

      The link was instead intended to be an avenue to that information. In Patrick’s post, I read:

      > And that my Twitter feed is full of people wanting to wag their finger in my face for caring too much, in the wrong way.

      That’s what I was referring to.

      The post about the right-wing reaction was also not a direct link to the person who said it, but rather a link to a Digby post that quoted someone from the Tea Party.

      Most of the links in the post are to people I read regularly and appreciate immensely.

      subjectiveobserver

      October 8, 2011 at 9:34 pm

  10. Steve Jobs was not a banker who needed debt and interest to make his billions. He made stuff, and he sold stuff.

    Not all corporations are all evil all the time. I recently read that McDonalds created more black and hispanic millionaires than any other economic entity.

    Wallstreet protestors should be in DC. Congress is the one who lets businesses get away with everything.

    noodadle

    October 8, 2011 at 9:21 pm

  11. “Post-Peak-Oil”? I don’t know how Apple’s manufacturing is on energy-efficiency, but their computers have kept getting more efficient, and the iPhone and iPad have moved a lot of routine computer activity off of full-sized computers onto small portables, particular the staying-connected kinds of applications, and made it easier for people to work and socialize from wherever they are instead of having to go somewhere specific (not only not having to go to the office, but not even having to go to the coffee shop for a Wifi fix.)

    Bill Stewart

    October 12, 2011 at 5:37 pm


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