Thu 6 Oct 2011
This is not a post about Steve Jobs. At least not mostly.
When I started writing yesterday, I’d considered calling it “Jobs Are Dead.” Small “j” jobs, that is, not Jobs himself. But in the spate of elegies and eulogies spinning round the web today, the title just looks like a misuse of the plural verb.
Yet the two are, perhaps, related. Jobs, Apple CEO and innovator and cultural poster boy for outside-the-box-thinking, was a pretty singular dude. He deserved a lot of the reverence he inspired.
I also suspect that the claims that we will not see his like again are actually accurate.
But that is not entirely due to his own personal singularity.
Rather, I think of it as a marker that the age of singularity is over. While Jobs himself was certainly brilliant, a man with a lifelong and apparently self-sustained vocation, that very figure of manhood – the iconic hero, the exceptional genius – has actually been dying for years.
Our old model of the discrete and stable Enlightenment human, imbued with utter individuality and backed by institutions, is crumbling.
And Jobs’ work – his continual pushing of the envelope, his delivery of connectivity to non-programmers, his pretty white gadgets that revolutionized social media – arguably did as much as anyone to kick while it was down.
We are, for better or worse, connected and collective and fractured, now, all at once.
You wouldn’t know it today. Today, we are inundated not just with the identity cult of Steve Jobs himself, but with an apologia for identity cults in general, with adulation of singularity and exceptionality. Jobs was given up for adoption at birth, read one heavily retweeted gem, quit school, and STILL changed the world. What’s your excuse?
Now, I want people to want to change the world. And I thought it was nice to have at least one CEO in the world who claimed the creative, wired outsiders of the world as his own, and vice versa. We all need role models.
But I think Jobs the icon and Jobs the inventor and world-changer were actually at odds, antithetical in their message and their potential impact. Mac and the iPhone have made the world of connectivity accessible and personal and mobile. They’ve made possible the breakdown of institutions and institutional thinking. They’ve also broken down the structures that support that notion of individual exceptionality: there is no room for Great Men in the cloud. Greatness of scale, perhaps. But all are nodes in the network, all connected.
The institutional breakdown frees a lot of us who owe a debt to Jobs.
But it also opens whole other, very real cans of worms. Worms of debt, and the decay of small “j” jobs, and the kind of society we believe we live in.
Because just as Jobs is gone, so are the jobs. Particularly for the types of people his brand spoke to the most.
I see the stories everyday. Richard Florida’s creative class – those of us reputedly liberated by Steve Jobs – is being hollowed out. Our most educated specialists, after years and years of study, face the reality that the academic job market they’ve trained for is, essentially, gone. Universities are caught between their old institutional structure and newly institutionalized corporate realities which make tenure look untenable.
The NYT article on the Stanford Open Online Course talks about its potential to disrupt education. I’m all for disrupting education.
But. If the model succeeds – perhaps not this round but over years – what happens to Stanford in the long run? And to universities in general? And beyond the idea of the university as a bricks-and-mortar institution, to the concept of public education and the jobs affiliated? Sure, many will find creative ways to innovate and monetize and perhaps even deliver and share free knowledge and content. I celebrate that. I’m hoping for that.
But they won’t do it by being isolated specialists in particular canons, unable to speak or understand the discourse of others. They won’t do it by having clear, pure vocations in which the lines are all tidy and what they do and don’t do remains delineated over time.
Yet we still raise and educate kids to think of success on those terms, and to have expectations that their lives can or should work that way. We lionize singular figures from our cultural mythology as purists, nobly certain of their vocation or their goal or their results-driven management style. We praise Steve Jobs for being the model of the very kind of self-made genius that his own inventions worked to undermine.
Fierce independence and inspiration – the capacity to see things differently – are the answer to change only so long as the centre holds.
Similarly, Jobs’ outsider identity and his advice to “stay hungry, stay foolish” only makes sense if you assume a stable, institutional PC or IBM-style culture; a machine against which to rage.
If everybody is actually hungry and there is no stable centre, you don’t get innovation when everybody scrambles to be extraordinary. You get collapse. Or bloodshed. Suggesting we all be exceptional all by ourselves just like Steve Jobs? Ignores the fact that even creative rogue CEOs are backed by the ultimate contemporary institution: corporate power.
I fully agree that Steve Jobs left us a legacy. But it is not to BE him.
Those of us who identify with the Jobs/Apple perspective on the world need to accept, to paraphrase Bruce Springsteen, that “the jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.” We need to stop calling it a “job market,” especially for creatives and academics. It’s a dead model. Our industries do not work that way anymore.
This leaves us with two problems.
The first is this: culture change and social media alter our systems of money, status, and knowledge, wide open. But most of us are still in need of some means of garnering money, status & knowledge, even when there is no institutional centre to define those things or the paths to them.
The second problem is tough for Jobs’ tribe: as the institutional centre’s Swiss cheese holes threaten the entire structure, how do we stand outside?
The notion of purity – always messier than it sounded in the mythologies – is dead. The lines between inside and outside collapse along with the edifice. To make money as an artist, one must become a designer. To make a living writing, one must write to a market, or blog product reviews. Student science conferences on polar climate change are sponsored by BP. The breakdown of boundaries and purity makes it hard not to be complicit in the very things that outsiders have tended to critique about the centre.
Even Apple – yes, beloved Apple – has led the Internet away from the open sharing of the web and towards semi-closed, more profit-modelled apps. Like so many social media shifts, the effects of this have a lot to do with tying capitalism closer and closer to average people’s daily practices. Jobs didn’t talk about that overtly: it didn’t fit the anti-corporate-corporation stance Apple managed so successfully as a brand. If there were ever true purists, they were gone long before he came on the scene.
So if we want to honour Jobs, we do so not by buying the myth of the pure, individualist outsider genius. We do it by using the connectivity Apple was part of enabling.
We are in it together, in this changing economic and environmental and educational climate. Social media enables the possibility of collective knowledge, of distributed action, of working together on a scale never before possible. Maybe we can figure out how to innovate together, and create functional systems that allow for money and meaningful work and some kind of liveable, post-institutional world. Who knows? Maybe.
But we won’t do it by standing alone, trying to be geniuses.
Triumph of the Nerds, he called Apple’s success, once. It’s been clear to the industrial sector for years that the old era’s gone. We nerds have been slower to notice, busy thinking we were on the outside and waiting for our ascendancy in the Brave New World where the creative classes would shine, and our ships would all come in.
I think the ships have sailed, but here we are. The centre does not hold. Yet in this mass of connected people is more knowledge and talent and drive – all mixed in, impure-like, with ambition and complicity and mutual reliance – than even Steve Jobs could have wrapped his visionary head around. If we can only give up on the idea that we need singular geniuses to figure out how to use it.
Now THAT would be a real Triumph of the Nerds.