the death of purity

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.

Besides, we have new ways of gathering to share and build and learn together, like the #change11 MOOC I’m involved in, or the Stanford version with its 130,000 enrollees.

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.


19 Comments the death of purity

  1. Neil

    If you read a few of the obits of Steve Jobs that have come out in the last day, you’ll discover that some of his individuality is a myth of both the company and the media, or perhaps it is our own need to create a hero. Despite what many have said on Twitter, we can not say for sure that Steve Jobs is the main figure of the internet age. Why not Bill Gates? Or the professors who actually created the Internet, most of who we don’t know their names?

    This is not to take anything away from the genius of this man. I just think that this type of individualism and hero worship is related to the downfall of our economy.

    As someone who went to film school, I learned that while the critics loved the auteur theory, because it enabled them to discuss a movie as the singular vision of one man, the reality is that film is usually a collaborative art. Sure there is a director, and frequently he runs a tight ship, but he can’t do much with actors or a crew. Even a novelist today has an editor, publisher, development executive, book designer, etc.

    Many worked with Jobs and inspired him. Even he would agree that a leader is who gets the best people to work for him.

    Perhaps the auteur theory of great men is dying, and maybe it is best that it does. Maybe we can focus on a future where we see a community at work. I think that is one of the reasons the OccupyWallSt movement has been getting so much attention. The 1% who have the wealth used to rationalize it by using the auteur theory of business. “We are the CEOs who make the big decisions, so we deserve the bulk of the money.” But we now know this is false. The CEO is nothing without management, marketers, and even cheap labor in China. Everyone plays a role, and while the creator and CEO should expect a larger share considering his position, the share of the CEO shouldn’t be 5 million times larger than the guy who sweeps the toilets. Without the maintenance man, everyone would get sick from e coli. So maybe in this new world order, we should stop touting those who are “crazy enough to be geniuses,” — which is a romantic notion, even if it is sometimes true, like with Jobs — and reward those who are best able to share and innovate in teams.

    1. bon

      dude. i think you said it better than me. that was like a perfect precis, with its own ideas thrown in.

      let’s start an essay magazine. we can call it “theory bullshit.” ;)

      i agree that there’s a really interesting synchronicity with #occupy going on right now as Jobs the auteur is lionized.

  2. Kimberly

    I got a liberal arts degree. (Well, no, but I got a BS in psychology with no intention of being a psycholgist, so, same thing.) No “job” prospects. I did non-profit work for a while, and then some political. Got disillusioned and went to law school.

    Hubs was a physics major. Really enjoyed it. Thought about research/academia and looked at his prospects. Went to law school.

    Did we sell out? I dunno.

    I remember talking to my mother (BS, MS, PhD in the hard sciences) and she said that college for my gen was the “high school” of hers, good to finish, and almost a requirement for a job, but not much more than that. I wonder if grad school is that for the next gen. Which means that “education” is not the entre into success that it once was.

    And so the paradigm shifts, again.

    1. bon

      definitely a paradigm shift occurred, between our mothers and ourselves, in terms of the level of education required for entry into success.

      but the paradigm shift concept doesn’t allow for unlimited raising of the bar, because there are only so many levels of ed and some of them are still not much of a path to a job anymore.

      i think what’s happened over the past ten or fifteen years and been accelerated recently is that the traditional structures of success themselves have broken down. it happened in the arts & humanities first: careers in those fields tended to be solely academic. which is why the fact that academia is increasingly business-focused AND over-subscribed means that no level of education makes a secure job especially likely. it’s not new, just bleaker now: your psych degree and my English/political science degree required graduate study for any reasonable professional job prospects in the 90s. you chose law, i chose education. you were clearly either smarter or more strategic. ;)

      i don’t think of it as selling out. that requires a notion of purity. i do think that as professional options become narrowed solely to market value we shift, drastically, and much is lost. i don’t think going back is possible or reasonable, though. i think it may even be possible to use online collaboration to foster a valuing of art & humanities perspectives. or some new version thereof.

  3. hannah

    Very interesting article, Bon. My somewhat inarticulate thoughts (I will probably be back later later to comment again) – the centre will not hold; individuals will not survive on their own, no matter how smart they may be. Collaborative and social interaction become most effective without that larger-than-life central figure; the spark for that integration to occur can only begin when the artifice of isolation to achieve success is dropped.

    1. bon

      sorry Hannah, meant to reply here but dropped it below as a standalone comment. the other blog doesn’t have nice stacked replies and i forget. ;)

      the affordances of technologies absolutely do shape practices and the ways we connect, huh?

  4. bon

    Hannah, when you wrote “individuals cannot survive on their own,” it occurred to me that we really never have…the Enlightenment model of the idealized man simply made it appear that way (at least as a goal). but the Enlightenment was a specific historic response to the power of the Church: like a teenager trying to pretend greater independence than s/he actually can enact, we went too far, i think.

    problem is, we don’t see our current models and ideals in their historical context and so it’s hard to think past them.

  5. christine

    a little intimidated to comment, but here goes…

    everything else aside i want to first comment on the death of Steve Jobs–i took this announcement very heard not because he was a such an amazing individual or because i love my ipod. no, it simply reminded me of my father. i grew up in silicon valley in the 1980s. my father was an engineer and self pronounced computer geek. job and wozniak were his IDOLS. seriously. my dad had big dreams and knew from very early on that the home computer, particularly the Mac, was the future of computing. Jobs was a hero to him. his loss simply reminded me of my father and his loss. it hurt my heart.

    and yes, nothing is 100% an individual effort. apple’s rise was not just due to Jobs–there were literally millions involved in apple’s success including the underpaid and poorly treated chinese workers who assemble iphones. even writing isn’t purely individual–there are those who design our blogs, read our work, publish us, etc. even a painter relies on those who manufacture paint or show their work in a gallery.

    the key, i think, is to see individual human effort like a star in the night sky. alone it would shine, but its brightness would only extend so far. but a million stars together light up the the whole, dark cosmos.

    1. bon

      …Christine, it’s funny. i’ve so seldom seen art or writing – even in participatory spaces – presented as collaborative, networked achievements. i think the discourse of the individual goes deep deep into our contemporary culture ways of seeing the world.

      going to consider how it’s still shaping my view of things.

  6. Udo K

    Hi Bonnie,

    A thought provoking post. I should know better than to open my flap before I’ve had 4 cups of coffee, but I’ve only had 2 1/2 and here I am. Reader beware.

    The hagiography of Jobs IS disturbing, as I think it should be. But I don’t think we will get beyond the Great Man Romanticism anytime soon. It has always been the conceptual Other to the (many different kinds of) masses associated with modernity. It is the pairing, the relationship between the Cogito/Ego and the Masses, that needs to go, and that is a ways off yet. Foucault’s phrase ‘the fascism of everyday life’ expresses it well.

    Given that in the here and now we are stuck with that dualism, and have to use it to move beyond it, my sympathies and solidarities will always be with the nameless, like those at . There is no centre, whether it holds or not, without the periphery to define it.

    I think one of the things we can do is look for historical parallels. That in itself undermines some of the singularity of the cult of the Author (meant in its broadest sense). The figure that comes to mind for me is Thomas Edison. At the time of his death the accolades were many. With a little time and critical distance we have become more circumspect. As a person he was not especially nice. Neither was Jobs apparently. He ran an intellectual puppy mill from which he took on many patents in his own name. So did Jobs. This is not to deny either their intelligence, but that both used some of their intelligence to take the intelligence of others for their own. Portrayed as inventors, we forget they became primarily businessfolk over time. Neither let patents lapse for the benefit of the ‘masses’; neither put inventions into the public domain without patents. Steve Jobs, like Edison, died part of the 1%, and shame on us if we forget that, their respective Horatio Alger stories and sloganeering for the 99% notwithstanding.

    I think back to last winter and the many tweets I read about iPads on their way from China. And that’s where we go from Jobs to jobs. The vicious cycle is on: the working and middle class shrinks here because jobs are outsourced; in order to keep costs down you squeeze the creative/middle class here and the working class there while abandoning the working class here; consumers have less money so you try to lower your production costs. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    How do we prepare people for that? Well, here’s where it gets interesting and where I disagree with you somewhat. We are still trying to sort out how the new technologies, some of them made by Apple, can be used to acquire knowledge. I’ll make the (simplistic) distinction between learning (what everyone has done since time immemorial) and education (the modernist discourse for learning in the industrial AND post-industrial age – First world post-industrialism is predicated on Third world industrialism).

    You wrote: “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 agree on the first part but disagree on the second. Apple/Jobs and Microsoft/Gates, Google, etc. want people to get education, not learning. The kind of connectivity the corporate IT giants promote is not open, despite the love of the word ‘open’ used so often. That’s where I think MOOC’s and the like are potentially interesting, i.e. if they can avoid the kind of connectivity that Apple and the IT Establishment (and yes, I situate Jobs there) are promoting. That kind of connectivity carries the baggage — the traces, as Derrida put it – that leads back to education (with its built in propensities to hagiography and Romanticism as the antidote to the masses) rather than learning.

    Well, I’ve said way too much. Time for more coffee. Thanks for provoking my little grey cells.

    1. bon

      honestly, Udo, i’m kinda afeared of the day you comment after the full four cups of coffee. ;)

      nice distinction on learning & education. as the uneasy product of a variety of education faculties, i suppose i’ve gotten used to the term, even though i’m not convinced on much the systemization it naturalizes (though it’s the system that interests me in terms of my own focus of study).

      i agree that any connectivity that comes via Apple or any of the other corporate IT giants is not open (Apple as a system certainly isn’t, and i haven’t stumbled on a single post since Jobs’ death that discusses the ways Apple has led us like happy sheep back to semi-closed systems, or the impact of that). also agree that it carries traces that reinforce all kinds of modernists assumptions, just by reinforcing the power of those modernist institutions (or at least, that’s how i think it works, loosely. reading on that very welcome, if you have suggestions.)

      but. i will say that my own Twitter network, in particular, which i use on both a MacBook and a handmedown iPhone, has brought me a great deal of learning. not education, which may be why my proposal seems to be, ahem, progressing slowly, but learning. random, rhizomatic learning. i am still teaching myself to navigate the distraction and balance production with the scale of what comes at me. but the connections are more than the sum of what Jobs and the exploited Chinese workers put into the technologies: the affordances of the technologies are, i think (hope?) still open.

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  8. Chris Lott

    No offense, but I hope you are wrong. The “myth” of individual achievement is neither a myth nor quite what the myth would have one believe… but I don’t really see much evidence that those individual characteristics and achievements aren’t as important. They continue apace with not only little change, but in fact might even be growing. The difference is that the recognition of what has always been there (the network) has never been greater and there is much more opportunity for contribution at “lower” levels. And long may the individual contribution’s necessity reign.

    1. bon

      ah, Chris, i’m not saying the individual contribution doesn’t matter. i’m not even saying Jobs wasn’t brilliant: he was a visionary, AND he managed to convince an entire culture that corporate titanism was just kind of an innocent effect of his coolness. that’s pretty singular.

      your point about the recognition of the network is well-taken. and interesting. i don’t think individual contributions and achievements are a myth: we aren’t becoming borg. cyborg, maybe: partial and hybrid, but pure borg collectivism is just another form of purity. the only place in the post where i use the term “myth” as opposed to “mythology” is in reference to buying the myth of the pure, individual outsider genius. that myth of Jobs – eulogized all over hell’s half acre yesterday – is a literary construction, based in the historical tradition of the noble Enlightenment subject unsullied by the world around him. i’m not saying anybody could have been Jobs. i’m saying Jobs couldn’t have been Jobs without anybody else. a lot of anybody elses. some of whom didn’t fare so well on the way to the construction of that myth.

      our cultural mythologies matter. i’m not suggesting collectivism in any pure state become the one we leap to, only suggesting that instead of sticking with what Neil (above) calls the auteur model we try to find a more workable, realistic middle-ground to model ourselves after. seeing the world through the lens of discrete individuals, decoupled from the structures and networks that determine their specific possibilities, seems to me to do more harm now even than it used to. as much harm as pretending humans are fully deterministic and have no agency, no individual contribution to make.

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