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