The apotheosis of Steve Jobs
If BMW had an auteur—the kind of auteur Apple had until last night—would his fans gather at local BMW dealerships when he died to light candles and toss flowers in front of showroom windows the way Steve Jobs fans are now at Apple Stores around the world? Would they storm Twitter to post recollections of the first and second BMWs they owned and thank Mr. BMW for having made their ordinary trips to the store for milk and eggs more like cosmic adventures in motoring?
Obviously not. No other gadgets have wormed themselves into the global psyche the way Steve Jobs’s have. Like most of Jobs’s coups, the takeover was a matter of design. Although he had been synonymous with Apple since the late 1970s by virtue of the computer he developed and marketed with Steve Wozniak, and the cult of Apple was already in full bloom at the time of the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs didn’t fashion himself the maximum leader of the cult until he returned to the company in 1996.
Jobs’s restoration was read by his followers as a resurrection, and he encouraged this interpretation by using his regained powers as Apple’s guru to further mesh his identity with that of the company’s products. Jobs became his Macs and iPods and they became him. By and large, they were pretty good products, if not a little pricey. (Ask me, I’ve owned a few.)
What Jobs understood was that there was and is room in the computer market for a prettier or marginally better product—packed tightly in a very fashionable box—that could be sold at a premium price if he marketed them as “Veblen goods,” luxury products that convey status upon their purchasers. Jobs hasn’t been alone in this discovery. Take the modern American kitchen. It has become our most densely populated Veblen-goods petting zoo, with its Viking six-burner range with griddle and double oven, its Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer, its Bosch silent dishwasher, and its MoMA tea kettle. The modern kitchen appliance signals the high status of its owner to friends and neighbors, and so do Apple’s products. When Appleheads visit your home or office and see your iMac or MacBook Air, you can see the Oh, you’re one of us! thought bubble forming over their heads. Conversely, these folks emit a palpable sense of disappointment if catch you with a Dell or a Toshiba. But you seemed so creative! You can observe this sort of messaging on the subway, too, as Apple owners steal glances at one another, bonding wordlessly as they pinch and flick their way through their iPhones and iPads.
Becoming a loved brand wasn’t easy for Apple. Given the automatic hatred the creative class (or those who think of themselves part of the creative class) has for corporations, Apple and Jobs should have been targets of scorn. What he and Apple had going for them at the beginning was their underdog position against IBM and then Microsoft. Apple wisely projected itself as the alt-computer company, a distinction Jobs cemented with the 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Just using Apple products was supposed to be an act of rebellion against the system.
After the Jobs resurrection, he made sure that salvation came with every purchase. For what are Apple Stores but places of worship, with priests who possess secret knowledge manning a Genius Bar at the far end of the temple? Is the Apple logo on the wall not a late-20th century cross? Is every Apple employee toting a handheld credit-card scanner not a human tithing-station? You laugh, but I can’t tell you how many Sundays I’ve gone to my neighborhood Apple Store to renew my faith, and to indoctrinate my children in its fundamentals.
Jobs’s flirtations with Eastern philosophy give credence to my interpretation, as does the energy he spent playing the role of the infallible leader. Jobs told his customers, point blank, that if they wanted his products and services, they’d have to use them the way he delivered them. Just as the pope doesn’t let anybody take a bath in holy water, Jobs wasn’t about to allow anybody to jailbreak an iPhone without at least risking excommunication.
Evidence of Jobs’s psychological hammerlock on the culture can be found in today’s news stories about his life and times, which quote heavily and without caustic comment from his speeches and interviews. These quotations would be ridiculed as Khalil Gibranian nonsense if spoken by anybody else. “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become,” Jobs has said. And, “I want to put a ding in the universe.” And, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” And, “You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” And, “There is no reason not to follow your heart.” And, “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”
I predict a quickie book, The Eternal Wisdom of Steve Jobs, in stores and e-book shops soon.
The doublethink of the Apple slogan “Think Different,” revealed Apple as an oddly totalitarian organization (no, you can’t change your own battery in your iPhone). What the company has always wanted its followers—I mean, its customers—to do was think like Jobs. Follow your bliss! But do it inside Steve’s cocoon. That so many customers regarded Jobs and Apple as rebel leaders instead of techno-conformity ringleaders does not flatter human perception.
None of what I’ve written is intended to subtract from the products and services he helped create, his extraordinary business comeback, or his tenacity, all of which I admire. My problem isn’t with Steve Jobs but the sloppy veneration of Steve Jobs. He made computers, pretty good computers. Isn’t that enough?
Charles Arthur shares some pop psychology ideas on why some people love Apple and some people hate it. (I’m in neither group.) Use your Mac to send hate mail to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and your iPhone to monitor my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)
Photo: Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs gives a wave at the conclusion of the launch of the iPad 2 on stage during an Apple event in San Francisco, California March 2, 2011. Jobs took the stage to a standing ovation on Wednesday, returning to the spotlight after a brief medical absence to unveil the second version of the iPad. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach