Monday, October 10, 2011

note taking. Goldhammer
In one of many recent articles on the late Steve Jobs, Dean Baker wrote (comparing Jobs and Alan Greenspan): “One made us rich, with a vast array of new products and new possibilities. The other made us poor with a long lasting downturn that could persist for more than a decade.” I want to enter a mild demurrer against the hagiographic depiction of Steve Jobs as the heroic entrepreneur, which one finds in nearly all the obituaries. My quarrel is not with Apple’s overseas labor practices, deplorable as those may have been. That is a separate issue. It is with the whole idea of the heroic individual entrepreneur who supposedly creates an industry ex nihilo and “makes us rich.”

To say this is to take nothing away from Steve Jobs, who was brilliant at what he did. But what he did was essentially to package the genius of tens of thousands of others, who worked not for extraordinary shares of immense profits or for rock-star celebrity but for love of the work itself. When the technologies are in place, it is inevitable that a Jobs will come along and find the key to commoditizing them, but creation of the technologies is a long, slow, and above all social process, which owes more to the actions of a far-sighted state and to basic research pursued in universities and private labs than to the genius of any entrepreneur.

Think of all the technologies that go into a Mac or iPhone: semiconductor physics, computer languages, ingenious algorithms, liquid-crystal displays, networking protocols, advanced modulation techniques, etc. etc. Steve Jobs was responsible for none of this, and the vast scope of the collective effort that goes into making each handy consumer device is a story that needs to be told by a historian of technology, not a hagiographer. Otherwise we risk confusing the achievement of the individual, remarkable as it may be, with the social achievement–the civilization–that makes it possible.

The singling out of the individual achievement is to my mind an essentially right-wing trope. It encourages the kind of thinking that leads people to argue that the tax system must preserve the profit incentive that is supposed to motivate these”job creators” and “wealth creators.” But the fact is that emphasizing the economic incentives to individuals ignores the importance of providing other kinds of incentives to the kinds of people who are not motivated primarily by money (and I think that Jobs himself surely was one of those for whom money was a secondary consideration). No matter how much we enjoy our iPods and iPhones, we should be careful about attributing their existence to individual “genius” rather than to collective effort and the education and organization on which that effort depends.
The problem with this is not the discussion of technology, but the refusal to acknowledge design. It’s ironic that a translator of literature would ignore the fact that Jobs as a designer was first and foremost an architect, not an engineer. Architecture is a kind of poetry, and poets are authoritarians of the worlds they create. That’s not a defense of Jobs as such, it’s simply an observation of why he’s important as an individual in the sense that Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg are not.

What was interesting about Apple under Jobs was that the attention to specifics limited its ability to expand. Apple’s model has been a large scale form of boutique capitalism. Google’s amorphous interest in “content” over form has allowed for continuous expansion that makes it much more dangerous.
The problem, Seth, is that this translator of literature used to be a physicist and mathematician and sees more poetry in the Dirac equation or the algorithm for the Fast Fourier Transform than in the sleekness of the iPod or iPad. And I beg to differ about Sergey Brin, whose search algorithm is a far more important contribution to productivity and well-being than any of Jobs’ creations.
The logic of google is technocratic authoritarianism. It will have to be nationalized, or better internationalized, sooner or later. As to your general point the aesthetics and politics of Platonism itself is authoritarian. Democracy is founded in theater not science. Theater is the culture of the secular and imperfect.
Also to add: most of the ease of use that we now take for granted in non technical computing, the social activity including this exchange, originates with apple and Jobs’ intuitive decidedly non-geeklike understanding of human behavior.
The debate went on too long. And he doesn't even know his history.

AG: "The pull-down menu was used in Lotus software on PCs before the Mac existed. The mouse was invented at Xerox PARC."

SE: "Look up the history of the graphical user interface. Follow the line from parc to apple."

Marcus Stanley, and my response
"The sociology of modern knowledge production empowers the scholar over the humanist, and the collective / communal enterprise of scholarship over the inspiration of the individual thinker."

You have that precisely backwards. The humanist is embedded in culture by calling, the mathematician only by default, while embedded by choice in a private world of universals.

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