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What's Our Obsession with Steve Jobs All About?

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Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs

Credit: The Second Take

The new movie "Steve Jobs" is expected to draw huge crowds eager to see yet another take on the well known business celebrity. Thomas Streeter, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, explores why in his new paper, "Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism" published in the International Journal of Communication. He writes that this desire says "more about our culture than the man," and that Jobs' story fits perfectly with the romantic individualist story that American culture can't seem to get enough of.

Streeter discusses the new movie and his paper, and suggests that movies like these portray capitalism as humane and with moral integrity, as opposed to speculative and predatory.

UVM: You write that narratives about Steve Jobs focus on his mastery of marketing, rock-star arrogance, and other genius-like traits. What do you mean when you say that "tells us more about the culture than the man"?

Streeter: Jobs is an interesting character, but if we were choosing whose story to tell based on the importance of their inventions or business innovations, we'd be telling stories about many other people alongside Jobs. Computer scientist Dennis Ritchie died two days after Steve Jobs. He was central to the development of the software and concepts that made the internet possible along with much of what makes your desktop computer, smartphone, and tablet work. Douglas Engelbart, who died in 2013, reconceptualized what computers could be used for back in the late 1960s, and invented the mouse and the windowing interface (i.e., the foundations for both the Mac and Windows computer interfaces). Either of them could be said to have invented more important things than Steve Jobs. But where are all the major Hollywood movies, documentaries, and best-selling biographies about Ritchie or Engelbart and the dozens of other key inventors whose contributions were as or more essential than Jobs?

There has to be another reason that the Steve Jobs story has been told over and over again since the 1980s. And I think the reason is in our culture: We love the story of Jobs because we love the story of the guy who bucked convention, pursued his passions, and got rich doing so.

UVM: How does your article fit into some of the cultural themes you write about and why do Americans seem so consumed with his story?

Streeter: Culture is not just on our screens, but also in the circuitry and institutions that make those screens work. I've long been interested in what I call the soft side of hard issues, the way that things we think of as fixed and "hard" like technology or money or law are at times shaped by culture, by habits of belief, fashion, and shifting values — by "soft" things. Markets, property, and corporations are now infused with variants of romantic ways of thinking, alongside more traditional ways of thinking. Capitalism has gotten Byronic.

The current Steve Jobs craze, which took off in a big way after he stepped down from Apple in 2011, seems to prove my point about Byronic capitalism. Jobs' story nicely fits the romantic individualist story that American culture is in love with. We love the story, and the case of Steve Jobs gives us a chance to tell that story over and over.

UVM: There's an institutional machinery devoted to producing stories celebrating CEOs that you say is a response to populist criticisms of modern corporations. Is Steve Jobs the creation of this "business celebrity system," as you call it, or is he the uniquely talented individual portrayed by the media?

Streeter: For more than a century, American society has been arguing with itself about big corporations. Are they good or bad? How should we think about them? Corporations shower us with lovely stuff like cars and microwaves, and yet they are global, faceless bureaucracies that generate pollution and create unaccountable power and wealth inequalities. Sometimes the debate is explicit; compare Bernie Sanders to any Republican candidate for President. But often it is implicit. When Thomas Edison was widely quoted as saying "genius is one percent inspiration and ninety nine percent perspiration," and when Edison and Henry Ford invited photographers on their annual camping trips so that their adventures would be portrayed in the newspapers, a narrative was starting to be spun about the personalities of business leaders, which when taken as a whole, associated giant corporations with a few interesting great men, offering advice about capitalist success. The news coverage and stories put a personal face on corporate capitalism, which, deliberate or not, acted as a rejoinder to the criticisms of corporations then coming from union organizers, activists and reformist politicians. Corporations are not faceless bureaucracies that the stories implied, they are the product of unique, colorful, bold men.

Ever since then, alongside the occasional waves of criticisms of corporations, American media has offered a pretty steady diet of colorful stories about the lives of corporate chieftains, from Edwin Land to Jack Welch to Richard Branson and more, stories that treat executives as celebrities. Those stories don't just happen. Executives typically have publicists who cultivate these stories the same way politicians craft personal narratives about themselves when running for office. So the stories about Jobs we keep hearing are not fictional, but like all stories they are partial, and need to be understood as part of the tradition of business celebrity media coverage. By dying young, Jobs has perhaps taken these stories to another level. But they originated when he was alive, and was just another in a long line of celebrity executives.

UVM: Part of Jobs' appeal, according to you, is that he's more like Ralph Waldo Emerson than Edison or Ford in that he did things like drop out of college and travel to India to explore Eastern religions. Is his life story really unique or just an updated version of the same romantic story crafted by the business celebrity system you write about?

Streeter: The details of the stories about Jobs are generally true, but they are framed in a particular way. One could tell the story differently: you could say that the details of Jobs' life as a young man were mostly just reflections of the culture. He dabbled in Eastern religions, just like thousands of other young Americans of his day. He treated the mother of his first child badly, just like many other young men behaved badly in the confused wake of the 1960s sexual revolution. He fiddled with home made microchip-powered gadgets in the 1970s, just like thousands of other hobbyists across the country. One could make the story about those trends, and how they shaped the culture at large. But instead we hear about Jobs' behaviors as if they offer some unique insight into his personality and success, and juxtaposed with anecdotes about the rise of Apple computer as a major global corporation. It's the way the story gets told — not its details — that put it in a category with the tradition of the business celebrity.

UVM: You say that the romanticized rebel-hero version of Jobs makes it easier for people to imagine capitalism as being humane and having moral integrity, ignoring the human toll caused by an unforgiving global manufacturing system. Why do we do that?

Streeter: Reality is hard to grasp even in the best of circumstances. Most of us know that "Steve Jobs made my iPhone" is at best an oversimplification, but at least there's a "thing" there that you can hold in your hand, which is more than you can say about mortgage-backed securities. Since Jobs died, Republicans and Democrats have lectured us about what we should do to create the next Steve Jobs and the next iPhone, but not what we should do to create the next CEO of Morgan Stanley or the next version of credit default swaps. The iPhone at least looks like something we'd want capitalism to be, where hard working people take risks and invent useful things and are rewarded for their efforts. Hard to say that about credit default swaps.

For me, the kicker is that your iPhone is actually just as abstract as credit default swaps. Your iPhone wouldn't exist without all the young women in southern China working for low wages who assembled it; without international agreements and government policies that organize all that labor; without the millions of lines of computer code written over decades by programmers scattered all over the planet; without the work of many thousands of engineers tinkering and experimenting both inside and outside Apple; or without complicated systems of international finance, shipping containers and so forth. It's just plain weird to think that the policies of the Chinese Communist Party are in a sense inside your iPhone. It's hard to talk about on a popular level. But I think we should.

UVM: If you could give people heading into the new "Steve Jobs" movie one piece of advice in terms of how to view the film, maybe through a particular lens, what would it be?

Streeter: Remember that the movie is not about how to run a corporation any more than "Hamlet" is about how to run a country. And then enjoy the performances, which I hear are excellent.


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