Steve Jobs RIP: Can Design Make the World a Better Place?

My tweet questioning the outpouring of grief regarding the passing of Steve Jobs has generated a range of responses. My original tweet:

Deliberately provocative, it certainly provoked. Perhaps too much, so I am writing this post.

My first response to hearing about the news was ‘whoa’ and then I began thinking about Deleuze’s discussion of death as a perfect example of an event. Death is necessarily impersonal; ‘your’ death is never experienced as such, only by others. The greater the proximity to death (as one is dying, for example) the more the living can appreciate you for your ‘life’; a life. Life itself. Deleuze draws on Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:

A disreputable man, a rogue, held in contempt by everyone, is found as he lies dying. Suddenly, those taking care of him manifest an eagerness, respect, even love, for his slightest sign of life. Everybody bustles about to save him, to the point where, in his deepest coma, this wicked man himself senses something soft and sweet penetrating him. But to the degree that he comes back to life, his saviors turn colder, and he becomes once again mean and crude. Between his life and his death, there is a moment that is only that of a life playing with death (28).

I recognised that in Steve Jobs’s passing. A life had passed. I am not a psychopath; I also felt sad at Jobs’s death, particularly because his illness was rendered public due to the market-based connection between his health and the relative share value of Apple.

Yet, Jobs is no hero to me. There has long been a nascent hostility amongst the digital elites between those that saw Jobs as a hero and those that did not. By ‘digital elites’ I mean those whose professional lives and perhaps existence is in part defined by the competent, if not masterful use of information technology devices. The hostility is played out in rather fascile ways in a discourse of fanboiism. Every member of the digital elite is familiar with it, and participation in it, at whatever level, probably marks you as one of the digital elite. I certainly recognised Jobs as a skillful innovator in the consumer technology markets. He is on par with Alfred Sloan the GM President from 1920s-1950s in terms of the scale of transformations he helped introduce and guide through development. Sloan was behind the introduction of the annual model change, brand architecture, industrial design, automotive design (styling), and planned obsolescence. If Sloan herald the creation of the proper mass market, then Jobs herald their innovation. That sounds great, doesn’t it?

Well, no. Think of how much waste has been created in the world because of these initiatives. Having done a little research in car culture, I used to boggle at just how much was wasted creating new model lines every year. So? This is typical leftist propaganda, surely?

Coming out of the Sydney inner-west crowd, I was very aware of a progressive political ethos by a number of people who work in the information technology, design and marketing industries. I would talk with them at various social media shindigs, chat on twitter and the like. I could see a pattern in my twitter stream that those announcing their grief largely belonged to this group. These are people that I mostly personally know, so I am not describing tweeted links to other stories or similar. There is a contradiction here. Between a cohort strongly emphathetic with those who suffer because of the injustices in the world and the various mechanisms by which suffering and injustice is reproduced.

Steve Jobs seemed to embody the belief that well designed devices could somehow make the world a better place. This belief is materially realised whenever one typed or swiped the screen of a phone. Maybe I am misunderstanding some of the assumptions here. By increasing the degrees of freedom — experienced at the level of design/interaction — for relatively privileged elites how is the world made better, except for those privileged elites? I certainly agree with design philosophies that valorise creative innovation but what did Jobs lead Apple into innovating?

Discussing this with Barry Saunders I pointed out that Apple was not One Laptop per Child, he pointed out that computing freedom is more complex than basic access. I certainly agree, and I was glad that we could come up with a spectrum upon which it would make sense to locate the work of Apple and in particular the role of Jobs. Some of the more enthusiastic comments on Twitter have correlated Jobs’s role within a global society of somehow increasing access to personal computers for the unprivileged and non-elite. Apple’s business is not giving away computers or devices, it is selling them…

Perhaps the closest the empathising Left can come to making a convincing argument is when they point out the market segments created or innovated by Apple under Jobs’s leadership comes to define a given discourse. This discursive category then becomes the locus for democratisation. Here is an example from Gavin Costello:

The rolling out of “iPad-like tablet to university students” can be interpreted as the democratisation of access to personal computing technologies that is in part attributable to a Jobs-lead Apple.

The suturing of effective technological design and the discursive production of markets is what is troubling me here. The best research I have seen on this is by Kamal A. Munir and Nelson Phillips “The Birth of the ‘Kodak Moment’: Institutional Entrepreneurship and the Adoption of New Technologies” (2005). They describe in their abstract:

[We] examine how Kodak managed to transform photography from a highly specialized activity to one that became an integral part of everyday life. Based on this case, we develop an initial typology of the strategies available to institutional entrepreneurs who wish to affect the processes of social construction that lead to change in institutional fields.

They analyse the introduction of the roll-film camera by Kodak in 1882, and its role in producing change to the consumer markets. They “stress how a transformation in the ‘meaning’ embodied by particular technologies — the roll-film camera in our case — is critical to the evolution of a new field. Accordingly, we focus on how discursive processes reconstructed the field surrounding photography, and led to the development of this new field. Furthermore, we focus on how Kodak managed strategically to embody its interests in the evolving institutional framework through carefully planned and executed discursive practices” (1666).

Kodak produced a number of innovations with the goal of influencing the popular imagination so as to ‘democratise’ the roll film camera so it became ‘institutional’. The problem for Kodak was that photography was a specialist and expert practice. Munir and Phillips draw on Latour (1987) to pithily note that “while the solution was at hand, the problem remained to be created”. They continue, “Cameras and other implements of photography were still considered tools of the experts, and ‘Kodak moments’ did not yet exist in the popular imagination” (1671).

There is a parallel here to the way Jobs has been mythologised. Firstly, Jobs has come to personify the work of an entire company. This is evident in the way those on twitter slip from discussing Jobs to discussing what ‘they’ did. Jobs is not a ‘they’. The mythology imagines something like the above with ‘Kodak’ replaced by ‘Jobs’. Secondly, Jobs was certainly gifted at being able to create solutions for which there did not seem to yet be a problem. The first problem created by Jobs for which an Apple product was the solution, was the artefact of the ‘personal computer’. Then there were many others.

These innovations do not last forever. The socio-technological assemblages that occupy special social functions are often replaced. The practice of photography with a Kodak roll-film camera capturing ‘Kodak moments’ for the purposes of storing in a ‘photo album’ (the ‘photo album’ was another Kodak innovation, Munir and Phillips 2005, 1678) is a socio-technological assemblage. I discuss in one of my lectures how the ‘Kodak moment’ has now been replaced by the ‘Facebook moment’. People do not necessarily take photos with film cameras for their photo albums, they take photos with their smartphones so as to be shared through social media.

Hopefully, you can see I am not diminishing the effect Steve Jobs has had on the world or on my life. Has Steve jobs made my life better? Yes, I am part of the privileged elite. Yet, I am very hesitant to celebrate design work, however innovative, that contributes to the production of new markets for the purposes of commercial profit. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone I know. The point is this is what Steve Jobs was very good at. Imagine what could have been achieved if Jobs took questions of sustainablity more seriously? And I don’t mean only environmental sustainability.

I am struggling with the students I teach in our Online News journalism units to formulate a way of imagining sustainable opportunities. I don’t only mean ‘triple-bottom-line’ initiatives that take into account environmental and labour issues, as they are still oriented towards generating a profit. I mean a model of sustainable opportunity for appreciating a mode of entrepreneurship for industries like journalism, which have a social function that is often at odds with the commercial function of the media. What if iTunes had returned more its profit to artists? What if iTunes wasn’t a closed ecosystem? These questions are obviously foolish if you do not believe in working for sustainability…

14 replies on “Steve Jobs RIP: Can Design Make the World a Better Place?”

  1. A simple legacy of Mr Jobs, who was undoubtedly a maker of his own myth, is the effect the iPhone has had on communication for the deaf. It was a revolution. As the parent of a deaf child I appreciate the design of the iPhone (even though I do not own one). As an iTunes user I am not so pleased with the design.

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