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.


grazing in the cloud

Slavoj Zizek’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed made me wonder whether my research should focus more on how corporate platforms affect social media users’ sense of their own capacities, and – by extension – identities. It also made me wonder if I’m not really a digital ungulate: a docile hoofed animal waiting to be herded.

That isn’t what the article’s about, exactly.

It’s about the cloud, or the preponderance of web-based tools and applications that make resources available to us via the internet and computing networks. The scope of power and access that the cloud makes available is enormous, far greater than most individuals would ever be able to afford, manage, or comprehend if we needed to coordinate or store stuff individually on our own machines. The cloud is a distributed delivery system on a grand scale.

And as many before Zizek have pointed out, it’s also a veil of abstraction that falls between the user and the technology; both cause and symptom of the increasing privatization of cyberspace. Because the gadgets we use are ever-more powerful and ever-more personalized, but they are also ever-more monopolized by a few corporations with particular commercial and ideological interests.

Now, I am a happy citizen of the cloud, most of the time. I don’t want to jail-break my iPhone; hell, I don’t even HAVE an iPhone. Even if I did, and someone was kind enough to jailbreak it for me, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I don’t have the literacies. Sure, I spend perhaps eighty hours a week on my computer, and I possess a decent amount of meta-knowledge about social media and digital technologies and their implications for society. But I’m one of those people who came to the study of technologies through the door of cultural curiosity and theory. I started researching social technologies in 1997. It was only with the rise of social media and the cloud that I began to develop a practice – a deep practice, certainly, and deeply valuable to me – with social technologies.

That practice and its infiltration of my daily life and identity has made me profoundly dependent on platforms I don’t claim to understand. I am a social media animal, grazing in the cloud.

What I am not, no matter how extensive my interest in and usage of social technologies, is a geek. I use the term with props: my instinct is that I’d probably be better off a geek. Because geeks have a skillset and an agency with technologies that I do not. And part of what separates me and my ilk from the generation of digital enthusiasts before me – the generation who had to be, to some extent, geeks in order to invest as much of their lives and identities in digital technologies in a time when platforms did not make it all transparent for them – is captured in the distinction between geek and user.

I am a user and a thinker of digital technologies: I call myself a cyborg. But I do not have the agency a geek might have to control her own experience of the augmented reality of cyberspace. Twitter and Apple and Facebook and Google and Flickr pre-decide a great deal of that experience for me. And mostly I am happy with that, because I do not have the knowledge to make other decisions with, anyway.

Admittedly, I also don’t know how my car works, at any intimate level. But my social identity is not constructed in the interaction between my spark plugs and my engine. And so I wonder, as a social media animal, how corporate decisions about efficiency and profit and ease-of-use impact these seemingly endless capacities the cloud brings me? It appears to bring me new kinds of agency, and those are in, in effect, the subject of my doctoral research. But how is that agency constructed? What forms of control come with it?

Control, says Zizek, is one of the key hallmarks of this cloud culture. Vertical integration means that a single corporation is increasingly invested across multiple levels of the very huge business that is the cloud. As Zizek puts it, “Apple doesn’t only sell iPhones and iPads, it also owns iTunes. It also recently made a deal with Rupert Murdoch allowing the news on the Apple cloud to be supplied by Murdoch’s media empire.” (2011).

The cloud makes almost infinite access and choice available on one hand, while limiting other choices within the very narrow lines of corporate alliances. Most of us can’t and don’t want to make anything approaching an infinite number of choices. But when corporate alignments preclude even the rather reasonable and familiar choice of news providers, which most of us are more than capable of making, and then makes that choice appear natural to a digital citizenry conditioned to accepting what our platforms dictate…that seems like a problem.

It’s not a problem Slavoj Zizek has a solution for, unfortunately.

You can usually count on Zizek for a nice incisive polemic on contemporary culture, and for tearing sacred cows a new one as he goes. Sometimes he rises to the level of actually framing new perspectives on society’s comfortable habits. I studied with him for a summer back in 2004, and he was a magnetic, bear-like force who occasionally spat out tidbits that still churn in the pool of my thought-processes. At other times, I just got a lot of spit on me.

This piece on the cloud, though, left me almost spit-free. Sure, there’s a comparison between the cloud’s operations and those of the Chinese state, but otherwise, the article is almost…utterly rational. And observational in tone. It raises very few spectres, Chinese communism aside, and doesn’t mention Lacan once.

In the comments, there are tongue-in-cheek cries of “what have you done with Zizek?”

Shortly after a flurry of us tweeted the article out yesterday morning, Jim Groom noted similar concerns, asking, isn’t this rather tame for a cultural critic of his stature? Where, said Jim, are the alternatives to the problems Zizek identifies with cloud computing? And when, he said, will the poets of our moment emerge?

I wrote back a line from Ginsberg’s America: When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

It’s true, Zizek’s article largely failed to offer any sort of critical, mythical re-framing of possibility. And it’s true we could use a poet, or seven.

But maybe we’d do better with seven thousand. Maybe the problem isn’t solely the cloud, but the fact that our critical thinking skills are still set to a pre-cloud scale. Wrapping our minds around how the cloud changes things, and coming to any understanding of what the insidious corporatization of platforms means for identities and agency may take the kind of distributed, networked, crowdsourced effort the cloud makes possible. Maybe we need all the knowledges we can find.

Whether I look at social media from the perspective of individual subjectivities or the grand scale of the cloud, the issue of corporate symbiosis always crops up. How we understand who we are and what we do in contemporary culture – digital and otherwise – needs to account for the ways in which our social and learning environments and our ensuing identities are shaped by corporate decisions and practices and discourse. The scope and scale of this accounting is nearly as vast as that of the cloud itself.

Slavoj Zizek is a cultural critic of some stature, yes. But on cloud computing, he can only draw on what he knows, just as Jim Groom draws on what he knows, and I draw on what I know.  If Zizek had an answer, the chorus of blog posts that amplified his answer would each change it just a little, add something, create a composite narrative that might be better for the input of geeks, of poets, even of us ungulates.

How does the cloud impact you and what you can and can’t do? What control do you give over to the corporate wizards behind the curtain? What agency do you gain and/or lose? If you identify as a geek rather than an ungulate, would you recommend I stop merely grazing in the cloud, and start learning? What should I learn?

Tell me, all you poets and users and geeks. As Ginsberg said, queer shoulder to the wheel.