What are we to make of this powerful, contradictory figure and his influence on our society?
A decade after his death from cancer, Steve Jobs remains an icon of contemporary business and popular culture. Co-founder of Apple, he amassed a fortune of mammoth proportions and built the most highly valued corporation in the world. Many have credited him with revolutionizing the way we live through his approach to personal computing and consumer electronics. Both a drug-using paragon of the counterculture and a hard-driving capitalist often criticized for his personal monetary demands on his own corporate board, Jobs epitomized the “maturation” of the 60’s generation and the culture it spawned. Self-aware enough to refer to himself in anatomical terms I will not repeat, he inspired awe and hero worship in many, and saw himself as morally superior to those around him. He berated and humiliated employees on a regular basis, lied to friends, allies, and business partners, yet could easily be brought to tears by perceived slights and setbacks.
What are we to make of this powerful, contradictory figure and his influence on our society? Walter Isaacson’s thorough biography, Steve Jobs, shows obvious sympathy for his subject, his accomplishments, and his political and cultural prejudices. It also does its duty in making clear the major flaws in his character. Despite Isaacson’s cloying references to the liberal power elite and swipes at its supposedly ignorant, if not evil, opponents, his biography has the admirable quality of giving its readers the materials with which to draw their own conclusions about Jobs, his legacy, and his origins.
It will come as no surprise to readers, at this point, that I am no fan of Steve Jobs. To put it bluntly (as is my wont) what I have read about him leads me to see him as a mean-spirited narcissist who translated a certain aesthetic sensitivity and capacity for bullying and hucksterism into a colossal waste of money and collective time, further separating Americans from one another in pursuit of a false control over their environment. As bad, his personality and corporate ethos furthered highly damaging political and economic structures of a kind best described as libertarian socialism, in which corporations and rich individuals behave without conscience, expecting the social programs they vote for but seek to escape funding to pick up the pieces from their own “creative” destruction. I also see him as in many ways a sad character, emotionally and spiritually stunted in part because of the failings of the infantilizing environment in which he grew up. Before further considering Jobs’ legacy, I first want to explore Jobs’ origins because I think they can tell us a great deal about what has gone wrong with America and provide food for thought on how we allowed ourselves to slide into our current adolescent mindset and moral malaise.
Jobs in many ways was a typical product of a particular time and place—the post-World War II San Francisco Bay Area. I spent much of my life in Jobs’ wake, both geographically and temporally. Jobs’ adoptive parents raised him in what were then relatively modest suburbs of San Francisco. The area was not unlike that across the Bay where I spent much of my childhood, a younger sibling of his contemporaries. In some ways it was typical of America—sterile suburban sprawl. But particulars are important.
California always has been many states. The farmers and ranchers of the central valley have had little in common with the coastal elites except a mutual contempt for many decades. But those farmers and ranchers once dominated the state outside the rather narrow confines of a few urban areas. Indeed, Contra Costa County, where I grew up, once had a sizeable conservative population, where now in the Bay Area a gathering of everyone to the right of Fidel Castro could be held in a phone booth.
Silicon Valley, Jobs’ habitat, sits atop former orchards, just as the housing tracts and business parks of the East Bay sit atop former cattle and sheep ranches. But where the farmers and ranchers were much like Westerners in general—traditional, mostly religious, with a love of country and the land—those who bought them out and replaced them built a culture equal parts greed and smugness. Perhaps part of this had to do with the swift and total transition from field to business park. It had an impact on farmers and ranchers as well. A good friend of mine lived on a sheep ranch when I was growing up. I always wondered how his father “made it” on just a few acres, until I found out that he had sold most of his land to developers and did not really need to work at all. He was, in fact, simply waiting until the developers made him a good enough offer on the rest of his property so that he could retire in style. This was a common phenomenon at the time, and one that was morally debilitating as well as economically unsettling. “Waiting to sell” is not a great career. And, as with the avocado orchards plowed under on Jobs’ peninsula, the swift urbanization, characterized by an influx of people seeking to “make it” in their own ways, made for disjointed neighborhoods and little or no community. Service workers were polite and friendly, their customers and one’s school mates considerably less so. Something was in the air—self-absorption, mingled with greed. Jobs once chalked up his habitual rudeness as the result of being “middle class from California.” Whatever the popular myths about the California “lifestyle,” there was something to that—it was a place people moved to get more money and better weather, and where being the first one on the block to recycle, or get a fancy car, was more important than staying married and taking care of your kids, let alone showing common decency.
Jobs’ parents also were rather typical Californians of the era, shaped by wartime insecurity and determined to make a better life for their kids. That Jobs was adopted only added to the determination of his father in particular, who was from an abusive home, to give him everything. So Jobs was, frankly, coddled. His father sacrificed his career, moved, rearranged his workspace, and berated Jobs’ teachers, all to see to it that his precious genius would be given the best experiences and life chances possible.
Jobs was, frankly, spoiled rotten. The family even let him “drop out” of church after their Lutheran pastor did not have a satisfactory answer when he asked the usual “if there is a God, how could He let x horrible thing happen” question kids who think they are bright often ask. This was not a good time for religion, of course. Too many religious leaders were unwilling or unable to respond to newly questioning parishioners, or were themselves ideological nutcases. And too many parents were mostly going through the motions. Even many of those who still went to church would have been happy with a drive through mass. Small wonder so many of their children stopped bothering altogether.
A certain laxness in a society that has seen much hardship, then suddenly found itself quite well off and on the move is, perhaps, to be expected. And I am not the first to note the impact of overindulgent parents on the 60’s generation. But Jobs’ upbringing had these characteristics in abundance, particularly so in that he grew up in proximity to San Francisco, with its early development of drug culture and faux-eastern “spirituality.” A port city facing East, it also had a large Asian population whose cultural and religious traditions many “smart” Anglos aped and even internalized in a superficial manner.
One aspect of the 60s and 70s often overshadowed by nostalgia for the drug/sex culture was that it also was an extremely materialistic culture, in which would-be “free spirits” tended to enjoy safety nets provided by parents. Jobs enjoyed this safety net, living with his parents when he wanted, throwing tantrums until they sent him to an expensive liberal arts college, then dropping out and coming back home when he felt like it or ran out of money. It so happens that, many years later, I taught for a year at the college he attended for a year. Red sorry, Reed College in Portland, Oregon is one of those places where students dress in black to show how depressing it is to be young and well-off; lots of Volvos in the parking lot when I was there. And the drug culture remained. By my second semester at Reed several students had overdosed on illegal drugs. When the President, a “good” leftie from Oberlin, decided to take the minimal action of proposing a faculty resolution decrying the self-destructive behavior he was in for a surprise. At first I thought the principal opposition speaker was a bag lady. It turned out she was just some English professor in a poncho. She was nearly in tears as she argued that “we” could not hope to engage productively with students if we began with such a “superior attitude.” The resolution failed by an overwhelming margin.
By the late-1980s, when I taught there, Reed’s core curriculum had become just another way of teaching multicultural and queer studies. But when Jobs attended, Reed’s classes, though not its students, retained some sanity and expected some actual discipline. This bothered Jobs, who dropped out but hung around to take “important” courses like calligraphy, which he credited with inspiring him to make everything beautiful. Sure. Eventually, Jobs moved out of his hovel with the drug den in the attic, travelling to the commune (probably still there—did I mention Reed is in Portland?), to his parents’ house, and to India. He got a girl pregnant along the way, denied paternity, encouraged her to get an abortion (she did not), then walked away, still denying paternity for some years after. In other words, he engaged in all the usual “hi-jinks” and “mind expanding experiences” one associates with the adolescent mindset of the counterculture.
Self-indulgence. An unearned sense of moral superiority. Refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. I will get to the flip side of Jobs’ character in a future post. But for now it is interesting to dwell on the things he learned from a typical upbringing in the San Francisco Bay Area of the baby boom era. Now that these baby boomers have gotten older (“matured” seems a wildly inappropriate term) San Francisco and Silicon Valley continue to be on “the cutting edge” in many ways, most of them culturally and spiritually damaging.
A friend who also spent some years living in the Bay Area sent me a video clip that sums up today’s San Francisco to a tee. I will not link to it—it is from South Park. But the point is that San Francisco is covered, not in smog, but in smug. And the smug is wonderful to the inhabitants, who positively drink it in, in martini glasses, no less. The city is quite brutal, actually, if one is not wealthy, but that does not dampen the sense of moral superiority. The same goes for Palo Alto—the town by Stanford University where the “typical kids” of the local elites pretend to be just normal folks and where Jobs lived for decades. Thanks in no small part to Steve Jobs, his fan clubs, and his like-minded competitors this is, potentially, our future. And we should be very, very afraid.
Read Part II of this series here.
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The featured image is Steve Jobs in the 1972 edition of the Pegasus yearbook produced by Homestead High School. This file is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.