Sunday, October 9, 2011

On Steve Jobs, Consumerism, and Public Mourning

“It’s like the end of the innovators,” said Scott Robbins, 34, who described himself as an Apple fan of 20 years and who rushed to an Apple Store in San Francisco when he heard the news.”

The AP ran a story on the passing of Steve Jobs with this quote, and it’s this sort of hyperbole that has long since soiled me on the Apple thing. Yes, I had an iMac for several years and I enjoyed it. I had an iPod that also lasted me for a long time - albeit as long as it was perpetually hooked up to a power source, but still - and we all (not just usability engineers [which are too real, damn it]) enjoy the advances Apple made in its technology.

Does Steve Jobs deserve credit, respect, and admiration? Certainly. He introduced the notion of personal technology as accessible, beginning the trend away from sheer utility to devices that were elegant to use and pretty to look at. I remember the first iPod I ever saw - my friend Todd bought one in the twelfth grade and even though it was effectively the artsy second cousin of the Gameboy it was really stunning. Stunning, in that prior to that MP3 players existed in sort of a cultural ghetto, shunned by people for being ugly and unwieldy, cheap to hold and look at.

It was the integration of technology and day to day life that Steve Jobs introduced, and it was that aim which transformed the last decade into one of an unprecedented shift in our society. Within a year, white headphones were everywhere, telling the world, “I’m listening to the John Mayer album … on myiPod!” It was with sadness that I never wore the white earbuds, alas my misshapen ear canals made the physical discomfort of wearing them only that much more painful than the memory that I once used to listen to Poison the Well. I felt like I was missing out.

Is it any surprise that MP3 players are ubiquitously known as iPods? Not to people who care about it, but the general consumer populace. Oh, the confused looks I received as a Best Buy salesperson when I pointed out that iPods were a brand name among the wide constellation of MP3 players. All those people just bought iPods anyways, because they stood out. They made an impression. They made a statement about lifestyle that technology only did before in the broadest of strokes.

Nowadays, information travels at blinding speeds because for many, it is inconceivable to be cut off in any way. Our phones must be smart, our computers smarter but smaller, and elegance and ergonomics is stressed above all. Really, though, who can complain about that?

Momentarily, I want to focus more on Steve Jobs, the public figure. He was emblematic of Apple the company - his appearance on stage, decked out in his black turtleneck and tapered dad jeans - filled a certain crowd with a rock star sort of reverence. His impact is indisputable, surely, his talent will be missed, absolutely, but there is the less seemly side of the Jobs mythology that I just cannot ignore. I can’t ignore his reputation for corporate ruthlessness - the public scuffle between Apple and Adobe over the use of Flash technology, the current legal battle with Samsung over their alleged appropriation of the iPad ‘look - and persistent rumors of Apple’s own unsavory dealings (the recent spate of suicides in their Chinese plant still ring true)

Now, lest anyone accuse me of blaming any of this squarely on him, recall that for many people he was the face of Apple, it’s spirit, it’s avatar and paladin for their motto of “Think Different.” It’s unfair to thank him for the generous gift of his genius-via-Apple and ignore some questionable practices made in his tenure. It dishonors the dead by ignoring their flaws, because it paints only part of a picture.

Yet it isn’t Steve Jobs himself that caused me annoyance. No, it was his fanchildren, and you know who I’m talking about. No, not people who enjoy Apples. No, not people who really, really dig the relative grace and beauty a program like Garageband or Final Cut has compared to something like Audacity, or Sony Vegas. Not even people who have iPhones.

It’s people like the ex-lover of a friend of mine who was, frankly, an Apple Evangelist. He tried to browbeat my friend into upgrading to an iPhone (she wanted an Android) for hours on end, seguing into browbeating her parents into replacing their practically eldritch IBM with an iMac, despite them not knowing what Apple even is (believe it or not!). It’s the people who buy the Macbook Air the day it releases, even if their computer is nay a year old. People who will ditch their phones for the iPhone 4S. The really diehard consumer freaks.

Yes, it comes down to consumerism, and how it drives me crazy. It isn’t being a consumer, which is what we all are, or even being an intelligent consumer who just likes nice things (believe me, I enjoy my moderately high-end workstation), it’s evangelizing on a product for the sheer sake of it, for unironically trumpeting the virtues of one brand, going so far as to tattoo the logo onto their damn skin (and I have seen this more than once, oddly). It is the people who identify themselves by their products. People, well, who would tell you, “I’m an Apple.”

What I think is Steve Jobs’ other biggest accomplishment was branding. The guy was a marketing genius. He took Apple, which if you all recall was a deteriorating brand in the mid 90’s, and within five years made it cosmopolitan and sleek. Think IKEA: it occupies a cozy space between the bargain-bin and the specialty shop, and it’s just idiosyncratic enough that you’ll want it badly, but not so unique that when you outgrow it (or a newer model arrives) you’ll be too terribly upset about ditching it. Certainly this does not apply for everyone, but it applies for the Apples of the world.

Take, for example, the iPad. It wasn’t so much derided upon its unveiling as it was… shrugged upon. People weren’t sure what to make of it - it was essentially a big iPod touch, could do all the things an iPhone could do, but not all the things a laptop could do, but was portable. The name elicited titters. Hell, the tablet format had already existed among smaller niche products (like the Archos tablets, of which the only one I ever sold as a Best Buy salesperson was to my techie friend). But, undaunted, when it was released it flew off the shelves. People took that chance of buying a silly piece of brick because, well, Steve Jobs read the news on it on stage.

So now look: the tablet is a big deal now. Every mobile company has gotten into the game (those Android ones do look nice…) and the doubters were forced to acknowledge there was a new player in town. Like the iPod taking a dagger to its fallen foe, the CD Player (and the Minidisc ran screaming for the hills), Apple forcibly birthed a new platform into existence based on the sheer marketing frenzy of Apple doing anything.This is the kind of marketing genius I refer to from Jobs.

Steve Jobs envisioned a brand that would go to be a major cultural signifier for many, many people. To do so is the dream of every marketer, every advertising department. It took decades for marketing teams to make certain breakfast foods integral to the American experience where it took Jobs a fraction of that to make personal computing and gadgetry - even in the adolescence of the personal computer, a consumer good usually identified with the filthiest of nerds - inextricable from people. It was now cool to have the newest phone, the newest MP3 player, the newest laptop. It became an intensely salient marker of a person who is in the know, linked into that collectively unconscious miasmic hoodoo that postmodernity draggles about.

This is nothing to dismiss so easily. We’re social creatures, of course, and our self-concept is greatly based on these sort of markers. To lightly tap into Sociological and Anthropological concepts, the uniformity of the Apple brand is an easy way into a feeling of larger cultural attuning, Apple stores can feel like havens where people go to feel a part of that frequency. I appreciate the silliness of the previous sentence, but even the silliest insights have truth to them, and the truth is that Steve Jobs represented a cultural consumerist force that had a very deep hold on a lot of people.

Where does this leave the people who openly cried at the death of a man they never knew, leaving roses at their local Apple store? I don’t know. The public spectacle of mourning is one of those contentious things that embiggens or diminishes us, depending on how we look. I remember being deeply hurt and saddened when people ragged on Michael Jackson after he died - cracks about him being a ‘weirdo child molestor’ - because I was raised on his music and I grew up idolizing him the way my mother did, and it’s with that reflection that I understand why some people don’t like my views on Jobs, his life, his product, and the way people take it all so damn seriously.

What I don’t deny is that a man of stature, who impacted my life in very demonstrable ways, has passed on, and should be given all due respect as becoming to the dead.