Steve Jobs: What Is the Big Deal?

Steve Jobs and the Poetry of Gadgets

What is the big deal with Steve Jobs?  I have read my share of commentary on him, and tracked the phenomenal media attention that surrounded his death, but I still don’t feel that I get it.  Only the onset of war or some other catastrophe could have competed with the attention given to his death, the endless paeans to his extraordinary creativity and his boundless confidence in his vision of things.  The death of a president would have outstripped it.  But I can’t think of any other star in the firmament of mass culture whose death would have been covered so broadly (maybe Michael Jackson?).  Yes, I know he supervised the invention and marketing of the totemic gadgets of our time–call them our churingas–in the form of iPods, iPhone, iPads, and Macs.  Yes, I know he had a “storied career,” and was a complex person who could be a real asshole when he wanted.  Bullying, tyrannical, etc. are some of the labels that circulate around him.  But what precisely was the source of his celebrity?  Was it the money or the totemic aura?  Four billion and mounting, little of it so far, I gather, going to charity.  Is it the ruthless and relentless style, linking him with  earlier titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie or Henry Ford—the visionary capitalist?  Who is he, in fact, comparable to?  Is it his early, tragic death?  Or is it just the things themselves, the merger of commodity fetish and pleasure principle, in these sleek, powerful portals into new social and psychological formations, awakening new new kinds of needs that these objects promise to satisfy.

I write this on the eve of the October 14, 2011 release of the new iPhone 4Gs (on my MacBook Pro…).  Why do I care one bit about this?  It seems completely irrational.  Can anyone explain to me what is the big deal?   Has somebody written a great essay on this topic?   If it hasn’t been published, send it to Critical Inquiry.

–W. J. T. Mitchell


Filed under Media

3 responses to “Steve Jobs: What Is the Big Deal?

  1. That combo of professed Buddhism and ruthless capitalism, plus the chillaxed black-turtleneck-with-levis that he so rigidly adopted (slavishly, rigorously emulated by the fellows who did the latest product launches). He’s the Rutger Hauer character in Bladerunner, methinks…

  2. Tom, your critique of Jobs’ shortcomings as a philanthropist is justified and perhaps you’re right that the undo media attention to Jobs indicates a screwed up sense of priorities. At the same time, I think you underestimate the totemic and practical potency of the churingas that Jobs, the high priest of popular technology, brought to the world in the form of some of our best-loved tools of our time. He may not have given much away but he is the closest thing to Santa Claus that technoculture knows. Apple made good on the promise multimedia computing envisioned by Kay, creating powerful, user-friendly universal machines that delight our senses and are a primary conduit for contemporary social exchange. We have a very intimate relationship with these tools, spending countless hours “on” them for work and leisure (the slippage between the two is another issue). They connect us to others with text, sound and video. They give us access to and play our music and movies (downloaded cheaply from iTunes store or pirated for free). They provide us access to the vast web of interconnected, user-generated information envisioned by Bush and Nelson. Jobs was the iconic figure, the only remotely likeable popular icon of all this. He took on the evil empire (and lost), creating his own myths about a company that would “think different” and support others striving to do the same. He was a visionary inventor and brilliant businessman and it’s difficult to evaluate the extent of his contribution to culture and society.

  3. Maria E

    Rather than addressing the pros and cons of things that Steve Jobs did or did not do, I prefer to think about him as a popular figure in line with other modernists. At the time of his death, I visited the Apple website and the image of Jobs with his characteristic gaze through round glasses lead me to think of John Lennon. And as I thought about the link it became more pregnant than a mere visual resemblance. Neither of them “invented” the art in which they both excelled, but they both understood very well how to popularize the thought, the music, the design etc. Lennon with avant-garde practices that he learned through Yoko Ono that turned into music, bed-ins; Jobs through the design practices of Bauhaus, International Typography, Alan Kay and so on. Lennon and Jobs offer interesting lenses to the mid and late periods of modernism. Popular modernism is modernism’s late period; it is no longer new and shocking, but accepted and popular-ized. In The New York Times John Markoff writes today about Steven P. Jobs: “Apple’s Visionary Redefined Digital Age.” In December 1980 John Leonard wrote, also in The New York Times, that “Lennon Energized High Art with Pop.” Both miss the mark: Jobs redefines our (late modernist) age, and Lennon helped energize popular culture with (avant-garde) art.
    (And I did write this out a little bit more at my blog just after Jobs’s death:

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