Sunday, October 9, 2011

Steve Jobs. Our Hero?

In interest of full disclosure, I have never owned an Apple device.

So maybe I am just missing something.

But the current conversations about Steve Jobs are starting to get under my skin.

I know he was a great business man, and that he built not just Apple, but also Pixar, into very impressive companies.

And I am sorry for the loss, to his wife and children and to all those who loved him.

But I am a bit bewildered by the fact that everyone seems to have loved him. Of course, I would expect to find that on the business page of the New York Times, or in eulogies by technology experts.

But I'm talking about regular people. For example, I am surprised at how many of my Facebook friends have posted very personal and passionate messages about about his death.

People are saying that we have not only lost “a great visionary”, but “a leader who completely changed the way we interact with our world”. I mean, these aren't media quotes, this is what regular people are saying. And feeling. That Steve Jobs somehow personally changed their lives.

I've read some of the speeches he has given and he was a wise and well-spoken man. I could understand that people might mourn the loss of Steve Jobs as a role model, a businessman or an innovator to emulate.

But the vast majority of people aren't even talking about that. They are talking about the products Steve Jobs (and his company) created. They're talking about this man with deep love, because he was the creator of commercial products that they love. In essence it is a celebration of iPods, iPads and iPhones. As though our lives could never have been the same, nor nearly as rich, without these products.

Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, died a few days before Steve Jobs. She was a woman who fought to literally reclaim our environment, by planting trees. Moreover she sought to empower local, grassroots communities to re-imagine their place in the world and their ability to enact change in the world around them. In the words that have been used to describe Steve Jobs she “completely changed the way people interact with the world around them.” And by that, I mean the real, physical world, this planet on which we live, and the power structures that often overtake it.

Yet, suffice it to say, I have seen far more comments on Facebook about the loss of Steve Jobs than the loss of Wangari Maathai. That is true even among my African Facebook friends. Most of whom, I'm pretty sure, have never owned an Apple device. And more frighteningly, I have seen more celebration of the “amazing, brilliant, world-changing work” of Steve Jobs than of that of just about anyone else.

Is this what makes a hero in our society? Brilliant commercial products? It this what we've learned to love and celebrate? Apple products are cool and trendy and innovative. They offer some real advantages. But I have also heard many news pieces citing the fact that Steve Jobs was amazing because he took a product, the iPad, that researches insisted the public simply did not need, and made it popular. Is this really to be celebrated?

Apple products are highly priced, heavily branded, and certainly part of our tendency toward conspicuous-consumption. Each new Apple release is surrounded by so much hype that one can hardly help but believe they have reinvented the moon. And each new release inspires endless talk from friends about whether they should upgrade to the latest version of the iPhone. Really? I'm just not convinced that this is the kind of “world-change” that I am looking for.

Most of Apple's products are produced in China, in factories that have come under serious scrutiny for high suicide rates, unsafe working conditions, and unreasonable working hours. No doubt this is an issue that applies not only to Apple but to the companies that make much of what we consume, whether it is electronics, clothing or food. Still, it seems to me that in some way we have become so enamored with the Apple's much-lauded effect on our digital worlds that we are willing to overlook Apple's effect on our real world.

The people who make Apple products work in the real world, in conditions that we are largely unaware of, and should be opposed to. Meanwhile, our own country is spiraling toward higher and higher rates of unemployment. We are angry with the government for not fixing the economy, but what about all of the companies that despite massive profits, choose to have their products manufactured outside this country in pursuit of ever lower wages and lax regulations? And ultimately, what about all of us, the consumers, who are so willing not only to embrace these products, but to celebrate them as world-changing?

The digital world is amazing. I appreciate blogging on it. I appreciate its ability to bring the SHONA women to you. But if your purchases from SHONA helped the women only in a digital world, and not in their real physical world, would you really be so excited about your purchases?

Our effect in the digital world has to connect to our effect in the real world. I have no doubt that Apple products are beautiful examples of technology. But we must start to demand more of the products we consume and the companies we lionize. We must start to examine their effect in the real world, both here and abroad.

Right now, the Occupy Wall Street Protests are slowly starting to spread and gain momentum. I think there is a lot to be said about their demand that we hold corporations accountable. But ultimately we also have to hold ourselves, as consumers, accountable. When we find ourselves falling in love with consumer products, and turning their creators into our heroes, perhaps we should reassess our own values as well.


Anonymous said...

The painful truth is the ignorance and lack of knowledge that human kind have.

Steve Jobs no hero of mine. Whilst I read your blog and tottaly aggreed with you, it downed on me that you failed to mention the minerals from countries such as my DR Congo which are used to make these electronics luxury. Most importantly the atrocious violence of rape that is in the roots of all this exchange of greed. Do visit & sign our petition

John Buchanan said...

Shona, I like your take on this issue. Personally I find it incredible that the demand for goods like this survives when there is a worldwide recession and governments are telling people to tighten their belts.