Joining up the dots: Steve Jobs, Slavoj Žižek and "good capitalism"

Watch the moving and inspirational commencement speech that Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005. From the story of his birth to the daily awareness of his death, he joins up the dots to write the personal story. But those dots are part of a larger context of what has made the technology industry a success over the past 30 years in contrast to the failure of finance in the same period. Strong, pro-active anti-trust policy is as much a part of the Jobs/Valley success-story as the manipulation of legislation is part of the tragedy of finance
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
7 October 2011
If you haven't watched it before, take a moment to listen to Steve Jobs' Stanford Graduates commencement speech of 2005. It is simple, moving and inspiring. And all the more so today, in the days near his death. To hear the just dead man speaking passionately about transience , about his nakedness, about the condition of freedom and its enhancement through the idea of death invites a great up-welling of sympathy - Jobs becomes everyman, humanly frail but plucky.

Jobs talks about "joining the dots" - making sense of a life. But also about joining the pixels on the screen to make beautifully typographed texts. Some of the dots that Jobs joins go from the dot of his birth and adoptive parents to the family financial pressure he felt to leave university after 6 months; to the beauty of the calligraphy in the labels appended to everything from drawers to official announcements at Reed College where he "dropped-in", having dropped-out ... and finally - the dot on the i - one of the crucial design constraints of the first Mac was that it should allow the display of properly calligraphed fonts. Apple invented a way of representing fonts for digital use that allowed the designer control over every dot on the screen and every rule of spacing and placement.

So what words do the dots join up to form in Jobs' first of three stories? Jobs, master artisan, was adopted because his biological mother was a college drop-out who wanted college above all else for her natural son; he became a college drop-out because he could not face the financial burden he represented for his working class parents; that allowed him to study calligraphy; that led him to set the right design requirement for the first Mac ... (Can there be a better advertisement for a non-instrumentalised higher education, by the way? Imagine the Reed College calligraphers filling out their market impact assessment forms in the late 1960's: "We firmly believe that our culture of attention to beauty and detail for its own sake will go on to create the US's most valuable corporation within 40 years".)

For many of my friends and ex-colleagues in Silicon Valley, Jobs' commencement speech is a sort of credo. It encapsulates the life they believe they are leading, whether they are ambitious start-up entrepreneurs or engineers. One of the most touching stories of that spirit - also a story about Apple, Jobs and the loyalty that his vision created - is this Ira Glass interview of an employee who loses his job at Apple but continues to work there, unpaid, long hours - because what he was doing, he believed, was so important. And it was. Listen.

Slavoj Žižek has been pointedly critical of the "Western Bhuddism" that Jobs' commencement speech so exemplifies. Zizek analyses it as part of the the legitimating fabric of ideology coming out of the West Coast. As he sees it,

... George Lucas explained the personal level through a type of pop-Buddhism: “[Skywalker-father] turns into Darth Vader because he gets attached to things. He can’t let go of his mother; he can’t let go of his girlfriend. He can’t let go of things. It makes you greedy. And when you’re greedy, you are on the path to the dark side, because you fear you’re going to lose things.”

This is pure Jobsianism. But for Žižek, what is really notable is: the parallel political question: How did the Republic turn into the Empire, or, more precisely, how does a democracy become a dictatorship? Lucas explained that it isn’t that the Empire conquered the Republic, but that the Republic became the Empire. “One day, Princess Leia and her friends woke up and said, ‘This isn’t the Republic anymore, it’s the Empire. We are the bad guys.’ [... Star Wars'] key insight [is] that “we are the bad guys,” that the Empire emerges through the very way we, the “good guys,” fight the enemy out there.”

As so often with Žižek, there is an important element of truth here that we should not allow his bluntness to obscure. The nugget to keep is that the Jobsian message of authenticity, of quasi-Randian pursuit of the dream, of perfectionism is not just value neutral - it is a platitude that these virtues can be put to the most terrible uses; ironically and terribly, the virtues actually engender the worst vices. The elevation of the Jobsian virtues into the ultimate goods is destructive in large part because they allow the well-intentioned actions of self-believing virtuous heroes to go unquestioned, even when they lead to violence and destruction. How many Wall Street and City hot-shots genuinely believed they were (and still are) living their own Jobsian dots, a story that they trust will make sense when joined up with the right calligraphy?

But Žižek can also be insufficiently constructive. There may be only a syllable between Jobs and jobbers, and only a few pixels between them and robbers, but we should ask what the institutional reality of those few brushstrokes actually are. The question is important because it goes towards answering the details that might underlie the notions of "good" and "bad" capitalism that Will Hutton, Ed Milliband and even David Cameron seem to want to turn into policy.

The truth of the wider history of the personal computer - the chapter in which Jobs' dots have inscribed a few of the great sentences - is that it has been intricately shaped by policy, and specifically anti-trust policy. Apple failed after 10 years - the failure that Jobs describes in the Stanford speech as crucial to its resurrection and second coming - because Microsoft had won the business desktop market with an inferior product. Microsoft had won that market because IBM,mired in anti-trust litigation, decided to cede the market to what it hoped might be the weaker rival. Microsoft itself became embroiled in anti-monopoly litigation at just the time when the Internet would re-revolutionise the PC landscape. The re-birth of Apple and the rise of Google have brought both of them into the line of fire of the Federal Trade Commission and US anti-trust.

The important point is that anti-trust has created an environment - however imperfectly - that limits the operation of the technology companies that have become too big for the health of the wider economy. And the personal history that Jobs describes - one in which it is possible for a driven visionary like him to keep at his work because he "has faith that the dots will join up" - is made virtuous by the institutional setting in which it operates and not because of the rightly dismissed mantras of Western Rando-Bhuddism.

There is no karmic invisible hand, one which will join-up in beautiful calligraphy the pixellated events of the hero's life. But there are powerful institutions that will provide a guiding hand. And the difference between the financial industry and Silicon Valley over the last 30 years is that the latter has been shaped in its large-scale narrative by the highly pragmatic, hands-on policy interference of anti-trust, while the former has fought like the Dark Star to rid itself of any such constraints.

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