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Was Steve Jobs the ultimate post-modernist?

Neoliberalism sought to revive capitalism with a seductive, populist culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. Steve Jobs made it happen.

Stuart Jeffries29 October 2021

Was Steve Jobs the ultimate post-modernist?

Umberto Eco, not entirely joking, argued that Apple resembled the Catholic church and had a Jesuitical genius for  developing user-friendly interfaces to keep the faithful abased before its altar. Meanwhile, its main rival Microsoft was Protestant:

The Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ‘ratio studiorum’ of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory, it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the Kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: the essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation. DOS [Microsoft’s oper- ating system] is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can reach salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: a long way from the baroque community of revellers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

Certainly, Jobs envisaged the Apple Mac, which was launched in 1984, as salvation, if by salvation one meant deliverance from woeful technology. It had been the result of a small research team he headed at Apple in the early 1980s to produce what he called ‘the most insanely great computer’, featuring a revelatory gizmo called a mouse, by means of which users could navigate an unprecedentedly graphics-rich interface more easily than with mere keyboard commands.

The Apple Mac made its first public appearance during a commercial break in the 1984 Super Bowl, in an advertisement made by Ridley Scott, director of such nightmarish films as Blade Runner and Alien. Glum, grey workers (played by extras whom Scott, filming in the UK, had reportedly hired from Britain’s skinhead community) sat in a vast grey hall listening to a portentous Big Brother declaiming from a huge screen:

Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology – where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!

But, as Big Brother set out his philosophy, there was a disturbance in the hall. A young, blonde woman started to run towards the screen carrying a sledgehammer. You might think she looks like an escapee from a Leni Riefenstahl movie about the unstoppable athletic prowess of the übermenschen; but that would be to miss copywriter Steve Hayden’s point. Unlike the glum drones she passed as she ran, this woman was in colour, with bright orange shorts and a white singlet bearing a line drawing of the Apple Mac on it. Four goons with nightsticks pursued our heroine, but they could not stop her hurling the sledgehammer into Big Brother’s telescreen.

The successful candidate for the role, Anya Major, was a model and discus-throwing athlete. In the ad, her sledgehammer hits the target. Suddenly, the gloom is bathed in healing light. ‘On January 24th’, another voiceover announced, this time not from the sinister Big Brother, ‘Apple Computer will introduce the Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like [Orwell’s] Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ The screen faded to black as the voice-over ended, and the rainbow Apple logo appeared.

A few months after the ad was broadcast, George Orwell’s estate sent a cease-and-desist letter to Apple and the Chiat/Day advertising agency, claiming that the commercial breached copy-right. It had little effect. Indeed, the commercial has since been hailed as a masterpiece, winning many awards and in 1995 topping Advertising Age’s chart of the best commercials.

One of the reasons it won so many awards is that it tapped into contemporary American fears that computers could enslave the masses and invade their privacy. A Harris poll, taken the previous September, found that 68 per cent of Americans believed ‘the use of computers had to be sharply restricted in the future in order to preserve privacy’. At the time, the New York Times reported, the Internal Revenue Service had begun testing the use of computerised lifestyle information, such as the types of cars people owned, to track down errant taxpayers, while an FBI advisory committee recommended that the bureau computer system include data on people who, though not charged with wrongdoing, had associated with drug traffickers.

In this context, Apple’s Super Bowl advertisement effectively suggested that large computers, such as those manufactured by International Business Machines (IBM), then the dominant computer maker, were part of an Orwellian surveillance state, while personal computers manufactured by Apple were a revolution against such computerised Big Brothers. In a 1985 Playboy interview, Steve Jobs cast IBM as the great enemy of innovation, and framed the battle as nothing less than a battle of light versus dark in the race for the future. ‘If, for some reason, we make some giant mistakes and IBM wins, my personal feeling is that we are going to enter sort of a computer Dark Ages for about 20 years’, he said. ‘Once IBM gains control of a market sector, they almost always stop innovation. They prevent innovation from happening.’

Some experts were sceptical. ‘The notion that a personal computer will set you free is appalling’, Joseph Weizenbaum, computer science professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the New York Times. ‘The ad seems to say the remedy to too much technology is more technology. It’s like selling someone a pistol to defend himself in the event of nuclear war.’ What the Apple Mac represented, at least for its enthusiasts, was the potential for a democratic social revolution that would undermine state power and harness the power of the people. ‘The Apple ad expresses a potential of small computers’, one communications expert told the New York Times. ‘This potential may not automatically flow from the company’s product. But if enough people held a shared intent, grass-roots electronic bulletin boards (through which computer users share messages) might result in better balancing of political power.’

Steve Jobs was an unlikely person to revolutionise the computer industry. He was a college dropout who visited India seeking spiritual enlightenment from Zen masters, and cited as his leading intellectual influence a venerable West Coast hippie. His parents, Joanne Carole Schieble and Syrian immigrant Abdulfattah Jandali, put Steve up for adoption not long after his birth in San Francisco in 1955. He was adopted by used-car salesman Paul Jobs and his wife Clara. Raised in Cupertino, California, Jobs met Steve Wozniak while at high school. Wozniak was a technical wizard with whom Jobs collaborated on making and selling what they marketed as ‘blue boxes’ – gizmos that users could use to piggy-back on phone lines in order to make free (and illegal) calls.

After dropping out of college in 1972, Jobs worked as an engineer at videogames maker Atari, where he was relegated to night shifts because of his reportedly poor hygiene. After returning from India, where he had received guidance from a Zen Buddhist master, Jobs met up again with Wozniak, whom he urged to quit his job so that the pair could make computers.

Apple Computers was born in Jobs’s parents’ garage in 1976. The pair named their first product, a version of Wozniak’s circuit board, Apple I, and sold it for $666.66 – a sum that allegedly had no diabolical numerological significance (Wozniak just liked to repeat numbers). Apple II was a home computer featuring colour monitor and keyboard, both unusual at the time. In 1980, when Apple went public, the twenty-five-year-old Jobs made an estimated $217 million.

There was more to Steve Jobs than hippie innovator, however. He loved to launch his new products wearing a black turtleneck and blue jeans, as if to say: ‘I’m not a suit, and we don’t make products for suits.’ On one hand, Jobs was performing the role of countercultural icon; but, on the other, he turned the release of a new gadget into a quasi-religious event, with Apple acolytes lining up like pilgrims at Lourdes, each hoping to be cured not of some infirmity, but of a desire that could only be assuaged by shelling out for a 64GB iPod or an iPhone equipped with a voice-activated assistant.

Umberto Eco was right – Apple was Catholic. Indeed, that thought was picked up by Byung-Chul Han, who would later describe another of Jobs’s inventions, the iPhone, as a modern rosary that is handheld confessional and effective surveillance apparatus in one. ‘Both the rosary and the smartphone serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control’, Han explained. ‘Power operates more effectively when it delegates surveillance to discrete individuals.’

In this sense, not only was Steve Jobs a brilliant innovator; he was also thoroughly post-modern. Jobs’s post-modernism consisted in making us desire our own domination. He was selling conformity masquerading as personal liberation, and Apple was monetising what appeared countercultural.

This astute merger of cunning self-presentation and corporate branding reached its apogee with Apple’s ‘Think Different’ ad campaign, which ran from 1997 to 2002 and responded implicitly to IBM’s slogan ‘Think’. The ad yoked together figures as disparate as Einstein and Gandhi to promote the idea of individual genius liberating humans from their shackles. Jobs, ran the implicit suggestion, was the latest in a historical line of liberators – though the ad-busters who scrawled over Apple’s billboards thought otherwise. For them, Jobs wasn’t a liberator, but a great dictator.

When he died in 2011, Jobs’s legacy was ironically marked in Hong Kong. Demonstrators wearing Steve Jobs masks and dressed in black turtlenecks and jeans pretended to present new iPads outside an Apple store. In fact, they were protesting against conditions at Foxconn factories in China, where Apple products are made. Steve Jobs’s legacy was not just cool products for countercultural hipsters, but anti-suicide netting beneath the windows of dormitories for exploited Foxconn workers.

Jobs’s genius consisted not just in founding Apple and revolutionising personal technology, but in creating a liberation theology that, in the next few decades, converted many into believing computers and phones could deliver power to the people. That article of faith depended not just on hardware like Apple Macs, but on what came to be called the internet.

The internet was conceived not as a tool that could give power to the people, but as a means of ensuring the state could function in the event of nuclear war. Jobs beguiled his customers with the purported countercultural cachet of his products. They seemed to promise an end to oppressive surveillance, while in fact not only making it more subtle and effective, but also making capitalists very rich. This, to put it mildly, is not what Steve Jobs’s hippie mentors had had in mind. Neoliberalism sought to revive capitalism with a seductive, populist, market-based culture of differentiated consumerism and individual libertarianism. Steve Jobs made it happen.

Social critic Rebecca Solnit argued that Apple’s Super Bowl ad of 1984 did not so much herald a new era of liberation as an age of unprecedented conformity and oppression:

I want to yell at that liberatory young woman with her sledge- hammer: ‘Don’t do it!’ Apple is not different. That industry is going to give rise to innumerable forms of triviality and misogyny, to the concentration of wealth and the dispersal of mental concentration. To suicidal, underpaid Chinese factory workers whose reality must be like that of the shuffling workers in the commercial. If you think a crowd of people staring at one screen is bad, wait until you have created a world in which billions of people stare at their own screens even while walking, driving, eating in the company of friends – all of them eternally elsewhere.

- the above is an excerpt taken from Everything, All the Time, Everywhere: How We Became Postmodern by Stuart Jeffries, a radical new history of a dangerous idea.

[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]

Postmodernism stood for everything modernism rejected: fun, exuberance, irresponsibility. But beneath its glitzy surface, postmodernism had a dirty secret: it was the fig leaf for a rapacious new kind of capitalism. It was the forcing ground of “post truth,” by means of which western values were turned upside down. But where do these ideas come from and how have they impacted on the world?

In this brilliant history of a dangerous idea, Stuart Jeffries tells a narrative that starts in the early 1970s and still dominates our lives today. He tells this history through a riotous gallery that includes, among others: David Bowie, the iPod, Madonna, Jeff Koons’s the Nixon Shock, Judith Butler, Las Vegas, Margaret Thatcher, Grand Master Flash, I Love Dick, the RAND Corporation, the Sex Pistols, Princess Diana, Grand Theft Auto, Jean Baudrillard, Netflix, and 9/11.

Everything, All the Time, Everywhere
But where do these ideas come from and how have they impacted on the world? In his brilliant history of a dangerous idea, Stuart Jeffries tells a narrative that starts in the early 1970s and cont...