In the last few decades, white flight from the cities has been reversed. With homosexuals serving as the shock troops, wealthy white liberals are gentrifying neighborhoods and cities, and remaking them in their own image. Such communities have certain symbols and institutions to let you know that you are in conquered territory where the “SWPL” (Stuff White People Like) rules. These include expensive cupcake boutiques, COEXIST and Human Rights Campaign bumper stickers, and a Starbucks on every block. However, there is one status symbol that lets you know when a neighborhood has truly arrived – the Apple Store.
Apple is no longer just a company. It’s a way of looking at the world, even a way of life. It’s shorthand for that mix of capitalist dynamism and social liberalism characterized by the “rise of the creative class.” Even the style of Apple products – sleek, sophisticated, sexy – is an attempt to show that everyday objects can be art.
The high priest of the cult of SWPL style was the late Steve Jobs, whose gaunt frame and black turtleneck became shorthand for “eccentric genius.” His death was a cultural milestone of the sort generally reserved for race-mixing princesses or self-hating rock stars. The insipid rite of the candlelight vigil was taken to new heights (or lows) when people programmed burning candles on iPads outside Apple stores.
Yet, however easy it is to mock, there was something extraordinary, even heroic, about this difficult man. Whatever else one may say about Steve Jobs, he passionately believed in the importance of creation and the power of the human mind. In a world of ugliness, he pursued beauty. He was true to his own vision, even when there was a terrible cost. Although politically he was a fairly conventional Democrat (though an not extraordinary Leftist), he saw technology as a way to unlock the power of human potential, not as a means of simply embracing decadence. His stand against pornography, has, not surprisingly, been condemned by those who think that the problem with American culture is it’s not degraded enough. As Steve Jobs put it, “We think basically you watch television to turn your brain off, and you work on your computer when you want to turn your brain on.”
The new film Jobs largely aligns with this heroic portrayal. Ashton Kutcher buries the ghost of Kelso in a skillful performance, and is preaching the gospel of Jobs even offscreen (to a crowd who clearly didn’t get it). There are several scenes which simply serve as opportunities for Jobs to read the inspirational quotes from the recent biography. An early montage features Jobs tripping on acid, exploring India, and stretching out his arms as if he can embrace the entire world. This is a celebration of a socially acceptable buccaneer capitalist, the SWPL Rockefeller, a capitalist you are allowed to love.
This is not to say that the film glosses over Jobs’s faults. Early in the film, we see Jobs casually cheating on his girlfriend, without even the pretense of shame. When his girlfriend later informs him she is pregnant, he explodes with rage, denies it is his child, and tells her this is “her problem.” When Jobs receives help from his friend Steve Woznick in order to complete a work assignment, Jobs callously (and seemingly pointlessly) cheats the unknowing Woznick out of much of the payment. Jobs’s charisma conceals a studied sociopathy, a genuine inability to see others as important or to empathize with them.
The film also, if only out of obligation, nods at Jobs’s assimilation by the bourgeois capitalist world. The drug tripping free spirit is revealed as a hard-nosed negotiator. The camera zooms in on Jobs ominously shaving and putting on a tie, thus revealing that he has become, in some sense, “The Man” rather than a rebel.
However, the film doesn’t really stick with it. The essential drama of Jobs is the struggle between Steve Jobs’s passion for creating the best product possible and Apple’s Board of Directors wanting to focus on safer, more economical strategies. Ultimately, Jobs is kicked out by the Board of his own company, a martyr to the idea of dedication to the product, rather the bottom line. In this sense, the film mixes its messages – is Jobs a hero because he put quality above all else or a monster because he sacrificed the pure idealism of Apple’s early days?
The answer the film provides is a kind of restatement of the “Great Man” theory. Contradictions and flaws aside, the victims, mistakes and betrayals of Jobs pale in comparison to what he achieved. The cursory examination of flaws is a formulaic glance at the “costs of success,” a necessary penalty to pay for genius.
In many ways, the Internet boom may have been the last stage of the great American rags to riches romance. We see the stereotypically nerdy Steve Wozniak essentially pioneering developments in personal computing simply because he thinks it would be cool. Apple gets its start running out of a garage; the first workers are random friends of “Woz” and Jobs. During the critical meeting with the venture capitalist who will turn Apple into a real company, Jobs’s adoptive mother keeps fussing around bringing food and drink. Yet throughout all of this, it is Jobs who remains passionately driven both by the desire to make money and to “change the world” with what they are creating, even if this means antagonizing his friends and partners.
However, while Jobs tells us the story of how the eponymous hero built Apple, it largely fails to tell us why we care about him now in the world of iGadgets that he created. After a sloppy montage, we gather that Apple is in trouble and the Board wanted to bring Jobs back. So they bring Jobs back. He meets with a designer, who tells him that he wants to make computers “sexy” again and Jobs sees someone who recognizes his vision. And then . . . the movie just ends. The film closes with pictures that compare the key characters in their younger years to their fictional portrayals. We’re left with a largely backward-looking tribute to this most futuristic of companies. One can almost hear Paul Harvey over the credits intoning, “And now you know the rest of the story.”
What happened? The story of Apple and the rise of the PC is in some sense an easy story to tell. However, as John Derbyshire has pointed out, this legacy of the “tinkerers,” archetypal Americans who pioneer great advances by figuring things out for themselves, has largely been lost. We live in a world of standardization, credentialism, and formal recognition of status, qualifications, and supposed merit. Instead of being composed of California hippies pioneering new advances, today’s tech companies lobby aggressively for amnesty so they can bring in more high IQ drones from China, Korea, and India who will work for low pay and follow orders.
One of the best moments of the film is when Steve Jobs screams at an unseen Bill Gates that he is a criminal profiteering off other people’s work. The audience roared with laughter – nobody likes Bill Gates, and the battle between the Jobs and Gates “types” later became a staple of Apple’s marketing. It even had an impact on pop culture. What the film doesn’t show is the later alliance between Apple and Microsoft when Jobs returned. Apple may have started as a kind of rebellious challenge to the PC industry, but it is now a pillar (perhaps the pillar) of an entire system. Just as in politics and music, “rebellion” has been commodified and sold back to us. How do you tell that story? More importantly, how do you tell that story to people who worship Jobs and the lifestyle he created?
In many ways, Jobs is a far better defense of capitalism than the cinematic treatments of Atlas Shrugged (part one and part two). Like Ayn Rand’s economic Übermenschen, Jobs is focused on his mission above all else. He sees no conflict between beauty and practicality, quality and the demands of the marketplace. Emotion and personal feelings are secondary to accomplishment. Just as Rand transcended her own ideology, what Jobs represents in some ways exceeds his own limitations. Like the d’Anconia Copper of Atlas Shrugged, the logo of Apple is like a family’s coat of arms, a symbol that means something and which people are willing to sacrifice for.
Yet to what end? The only glimpse of the Jobs familiar to us today, the guru of the turtleneck and goatee, comes at the beginning of the film. Steve Jobs is introducing the first iPod to an enraptured audience, who gaze up at him worshipfully. The music swells as we see Jobs’s face reflected in his creation. But is a device that simply allows dull-eyed drones to blare Rihanna’s “Rude Boy” into their ears on the subway really such a wonderful thing? Is it art – or is it actually something that actively degrades us?
Oswald Spengler wrote in Man and Technics that “Technics is not to be understood in terms of the implement. What matters is not how one fashions things, but what one does with them; not the weapon, but the battle.” The technological innovations of our time open up incredible possibilities in art, music, literature, and economics. Yet what is created is almost unworthy of the means required to create them.
A Mac is a more admirable product than what it is usually used to a produce, be it a feminist Tumblr account, another independent film about some sort of deviant sexuality, or an “art project” complaining about white privilege. The uniform of the liberal leftists is a balaclava, ironic facial hair, and a collection of expensive white toys. As in Atlas Shrugged, “Rearden Steel,” or “d’Anconia copper” or John Galt’s new engine seem better than what people actually use them for.
Jobs can hardly get the blame for this. Yet he doesn’t fully escape either. In Rand’s world, the economic supermen eventually discover what is destroying them and hold to a creed of individualism, accomplishment, and inequality. This is hardly Traditionalist, but certainly not egalitarian. However, in our world, Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs, and the like hurried to fund the coffers of the Democratic Party, and many have done far more than that.
Part of this may simply be trying to build the world where high IQ whites (and Asians) use cheap labor to lord it over a global market of raceless consumers. However, there’s also just something inherently despicable about men of great intelligence and talent building a world that is not just immoral, but ugly. Again to return to Rand, the captains of industry in Silicon Valley resemble no one so much as Gail Wynand of The Fountainhead, a brilliant and skilled media mogul who nonetheless devotes his talents and intelligence to serving the mob. When he finally tries to use his “power” to defend something of great worth, he finds that the public he has largely created is not capable of understanding what he is trying to say. His power means nothing, his triumphs are empty, and in the end, he knows he has wasted his life.
Jobs has many lessons to teach us. Traditionalists, in politics or art, need that messianic sense of mission that great businessmen like Jobs exemplify. More than that, they need the sense of practicality, economic hardheadedness, and willingness to do the technical grunt work that all great entrepreneurs possess.
However, what is also needed is something people like Jobs (or even Rand) only sensed dimly, a view that the “best within us” (as Rand would say) is dependent on forces ultimately outside ourselves. Wonderful inventions are less important than building a culture where they can be used for worthwhile purposes. Wealth, power, beauty, and accomplishment are usually wonderful things, to be praised and pursued. But if they are only used to build a world of stylishly dressed and expensively fed hipsters with nothing to say, then what good are they?