12.13.2011

Paint It White

Art by Wei-Ling Woo

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On October 5, there were two tragedies. The first, under cover of twilight in New York City, unfolded after a thousands-strong Occupy Wall Street march against economic inequality. Some occupiers thought they might take their first amendment rights for a stroll down Wall Street, a public street, and got pepper sprayed, thrown on the concrete, and carted off by armed men in the bankshadows of the financial district. But the second tragedy wiped the first clean from the headlines: Steve Jobs was dead. The New York Times’s website that night was a digital shrine to the CEO — to his vision, to his crankiness, his influence, his craftsmanship, his turtlenecks. Because who but Steve Jobs would’ve had the cartoon-like ability to wear only black turtlenecks? Was he merely a hero, or was he a god?

More interesting than the Times’s homage was the reaction of an array of lefties: not just Occupiers, who mourned Jobs in Liberty Square, but many self-described progressives testifying to their grief on Facebook, Twitter, and at Apple stores. Mourners downloaded candle apps onto their iPads and held them mournfully aloft. The global display of grief for this particular CEO, even among those actively battling his fellow 1%ers, was at least a little surprising. His hero status is, by any left-wing criteria, undeserved.  And his particularly hip brand, and its quasi-countercultural messaging, have been the disguise with which Jobs has gotten away with murder, sometimes quite literally, in his quest to turn his expensive little gadgets into the vehicles of our individual liberation.

For months now, the long divided American Left has pursued a different sort of liberation, unifying under the capacious banner of “99%.” A whole movement has taken shape, at last, to empower working people. Apple has always stood on the other side of this battle.  As journalists Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele noted, “after only one generation, all the Apple manufacturing jobs in America disappeared, as the work of building and assembling the machines was turned over to laborers in sweatshops in China and other countries.” In 2011, Apple admitted that some of its Chinese factory workers had developed cancer in these factories. Jobs’s company found the discovery an opportunity to celebrate the effectiveness of Apple’s auditing process, which had uncovered the abuses, even as, according to ABC News, the company “admitted that some of its workers in China have been poisoned and that many are regularly working in unsafe conditions.”  The enormous public anxiety expended on Jobs’s own cancer travails could not stand in starker contrast to the flippancy with which he threw away the health of his most vulnerable employees.

Further problems in Chinese factories featured every classic in the labor exploitation repertoire.  Anita Chan of the China Research Centre at Sydney’s University of Technology noted that while Apple may be investigating the worst of their factories, there are no mentions in the report of the dramatic  speeding up of production. In part because China does not acknowledge speedups as a labor concern, “the speed of the production line is very fast and for big companies, if they are very good in de-skilling, that means having workers do very, very repetitive movements, very simple repetitive movements, and if you speed it up that means your chance of getting RSI [repetitive stress injury] is very high.” Labor activists have indeed claimed this brutal pace as a cause of the Foxconn suicides of 2010 among workers building the iPhone, iPod, iPad, and MacBook. Suicides about which Apple was “saddened” and which the company promised to investigate.  “Apple is deeply committed to ensuring that conditions throughout our supply chain are safe,” read the company’s statement, “and workers are treated with respect and dignity.”

On October 5, Occupiers marched arm-in-arm with labor, the movement that brought you cancer-free work environments. The Chinese workers didn’t have a strong enough labor movement to procure safety and wage regulations — that’s why Steve Jobs used them.    Some of those working people wrote Jobs a letter in February, noting that the hexyl hydride used to speed up the manufacturing of touch screens in their Chinese factory was, in fact, killing them. Jobs made no response, though the factory reverted to using alcohol. Those iPads sure are frictionless fun unless, it turns out, you happen to inhale while you’re manufacturing them.

Let’s glance toward the actual design of those Apple products. No description of Steve Jobs’s accomplishments is complete without caressing the soft curves of the Macintosh or confessing the pleasures of stroking the iPod’s slidebar. His products are sexy and accessible and California fun — the Katy Perrys, if you will, of gadgetland. Apple is notorious for letting no one inside their gorgeous handiwork. No tinkering, no fixing. If you need something done, bring it to the Genius Bar.  This disempowerment says in the most explicit terms: “You are not smart enough to manage this tool, which is more perfect and more sophisticated than you.” It’s a similar attitude, come to think of it, to that of high financiers who have long won exemption from criticism by their reputation for “smartness” in an industry that claims to be too sophisticated for ordinary people to comprehend. It cultivates a dependency on the company’s services, and replaces experimentation and choice with awe for what is.

This could not be in greater conflict with what might be described as the Left of the technological world — those who advocate open source technology, freeware, and so on.  These micromovements have developed to prevent a tiny elite from holding a monopoly over the design and manipulation of increasingly integral parts of our lives. As the blogger “Armed and Dangerous” pointed out, the “freedom” of a Mac was the myth that disguised an unyielding design; but “such was Jobs’s genius as a marketer that he was able to spin that contradiction as a kind of artistic integrity, and gain praise for it when he should have been slammed for hypocrisy.”

Combine these elements with Jobs’s contempt for philanthropy, his shameless appropriation of others’ ideas, and reputation for bullying subordinates, and you have a particularly despicable (or honest) card-carrying, private-jet-flying member of the 1%. But this is not Steve Jobs’s reputation. Recently in New York magazine, Frank Rich wrote a tirade against the depredations of the twenty-first century elite, called “Class War.” He made the good and necessary point that these elites will not be the ones to save us from the crisis they ushered in. But it contains as well this nostalgic gem:

 If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius — in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on — was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” . . . That bipartisan grief was arguably as much for the passing of a capitalist culture as for the man himself. Finance long ago supplanted visionary entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling amon [sic] America’s top-tier university students, just as hedge-fund tycoons like John Paulson and Steve Cohen passed Jobs on the Forbes 400 list. Americans sense that something incalculable has been lost in this transformation that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

Ah, shed a tear for the titans of old! There’s a sort of producerist mythology that clings to Jobs and differentiates him in the public eye from the evil CEOs of finance.  Steve Jobs made things, beautiful things, while all those financiers have done is gamble.  He was a craftsman or, in Malcolm Gladwell’s insipid and mildly counterintuitive New Yorker article, a “tweaker” of great designs.  He represents a friendly face of capitalism to people like Rich and Gladwell, where people aren’t exploited for gain; great ideas are! But it’s been a long time since Jobs was building his visions himself in a garage in Los Altos.

We all know that Jobs was a CEO’s CEO — he exerted an huge amount of control over his workers, whose ideas he often presented as his own, brutally exploited labor where it was most downtrodden, and got filthy rich off our cravings for his well-marketed products. We’ve seen this before. But think of the treatment that other exploitive captains of industry receive. I recently saw Lloyd Blankfein’s head on a pike in downtown Manhattan. Frank Rich wants to kill him too.  Can you imagine this happening to Jobs? Huge student movements have arisen in the last couple decades to ban sweatshopped goods from campuses. Alter-globalization activists have shamed Nike into reforming its global sweatshop system. But Steve Jobs is a hero.

Jobs, it would seem, gets moral credit for good design.  Those “think different” ads still inform the company’s marketing message. Now the ads feature a lame old dude (PC) and a hip young dude (Mac) whose amusing interactions underline the Mac’s facility with the technologies of self-expression and its out-of-the-box integration with your daily life. In short, Macs are attractive add-ons to help you be you. They’re the best parts of us — our creativity and wit — reaching out into the world in technological form. There’s even some sociological evidence that we feel this way. In a 2009 study delightfully entitled “Self-admitted pretensions of Mac users on a predominantly PC university campus,” researchers found that “Mac users described various perceived social stigmas associated with owning Macs, such as the ‘artsy’ label, [and] the ‘cool’ factor,” and that Mac users found themselves, as if proselytizing for a noble cause, with a “tendency to vocalize personal opinions of Mac’s superiority, with the aim of ‘converting’ PC users.” And by converting PC users, they mean of course “causing them to buy Apple products.” It’s a complete absorption of the Apple marketing message, that these technologies are part of our spiritual lives, something to share earnestly with others so that they can purchase the feeling too.

And Apple products don’t just feel good, they feel like the future. With their sleek, approachable designs, they seem to have captured the aesthetics of progress.  The first popular product to really make use of the touchscreen, the iPod touch made you feel like Tom Cruise in Minority Report, moving visions of crimes yet to be committed around a transparent wall with his fingertips. This is a future where technology provides awesome, intuitive powers with which to bend the world to our creative wills. Everything is fun with a Mac — even schoolwork, even labor. In this future, we are all members of the spiritually fulfilled creative class and there are no losers. But it’s hard to squeeze the kind of labor performed at FoxConn into the same frame. The suffering factory workers just don’t fit Apple’s narrative of liberated labor in a frictionless world.

They certainly haven’t prevented Jobs’s rise to Randian greatness as a singular genius of industry, but he’s managed it without all the naysayers that dogged poor John Galt. His background as a West Coast hippie, and the futuristic playfulness of his products, have produced an image that is rebellious and expressive, and turns computer work into something fun, while sweeping the project’s laboring human detritus by the wayside. Jobs was not the first to discover easily exploited laborers and exploit the living hell out of them; he was just the first to paint computers white and have the gall to call it thinking differently.