Steve Jobs and the Trouble with Investing in Junk

I was strangely broken up this morning to hear about the death of Steve Jobs . It took me a good long while to work out why the hell I’d be upset about some corporate toy maker dying. Then I realized why I was upset, and it kinda pissed me off.

On the face of it, we celebrate Steve Jobs because he’s that guy you hold up as proving that the American Dream can come true. His success embodies a lot of American ideals, particularly that of the single-man (generally a man) view of history – the same view that compared Jobs to Henry Ford, another mogul who worked hard, fucked a lot of people over, and made a once impossible technology affordable to the masses.

All it takes to be “successful,” the story goes, is hard work. The trouble is, a lot of that hard work is breaking the backs of everybody else on your way to the top. And worse – it’s about peddling shit to people. It’s about consumerism. Being a robber-baron. It’s about innovation, outright stealing, blind arrogance, crushing the competition, and doing whatever it takes to make whatever you’re peddling come out on top.

Those are the American ideals we celebrate.

We celebrate people who create empires built on… things. Gadgets. Toys. Where are the folks curing cancer? AIDS? Diabetes? Or the folks getting us into space? Where are the radical futures of awesome, the ones filled with great accomplishments instead of just… stuff?

I was angry because I, too, had been suckered in by the idea that crushing your enemies to get to the top is something to be celebrated. That investing in shit and relentlessly pursuing profit is an end goal. It’s why I looked up to Jobs – he was successful and admired as an innovator and arrogant take-no-prisoners sort. He embodied all those American success stories, where we pretend it was just one guy in a garage who created a bazillion dollar toy company, and ignore all the people who helped him along the way, and the folks who had to sit down and make his crazy ideas come true. And all his failures along the way.

I wanted to be the guy on top. The winner. I wanted to be able to stand up and say, “I achieved all this on my own!” just like a good little American. But to say that is to ignore the people who’ve helped me along the way, and the people who make the drugs that keep me alive, and build the roads I drive on. It’s all very well and good to celebrate arrogance and capitalism, but as I got older, I really started to question if “progress” that is, building better toys, was really the point of it all. Where was my happy Star Trek future where nobody died of disease and we’d risen above warring with ourselves? It hadn’t happened, and it didn’t look like it would ever happen, because we were still so busy celebrating the asshole Henry Fords of the world who brought us shiny things while shitting on everybody else.

At the end of the day, Apple -with Jobs at its head – chose to invest in toys. Not something truly life changing, like, say…. a cure for cancer.

And we, with our sudden outpouring of sadness for Jobs and my own knee-jerk grief at his death, are supporting that decision – the decision to invest in a bunch of junk instead of pouring our talents, our passions, our resources, into creating a truly revolutionary – and far better – world.

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