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steve jobsPart I: Origins (Read Part II here)

2 ½ years 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.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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16 replies to this post
  1. Well, I never knew anything about him personally, but I always stayed away from his products because they seemed unnecessarily expensive. When I finally got around to going to ani i-store and speaking to an i-genius about his i-pad, I was shocked at how totally useless it was, how little could be done on it, and how ludicrously expensive it was, both in terms of the product and exploitation. That same day, I went to another store and asked a regular person (not an i-genius) about Samsung’s tablets and android. It turned out Samsung’s products can do everything my laptop could do, and I have since stopped using laptops for anything.

    Meanwhile, someone (an apple user) asked me recently “do you know what jailbreaking is and how to reactivate your i-phone after you try it?” He then told me the horror story of trying to get apps outside of the Applopoly, apps which I get for free through google play, and how the i-phone actually breaks down when its users try to “jailbreak” – to get out of the jail Mr. Jobs built for them and lured them into. It’s actually somewhat pathetic. “Just buy a NoteII” I tell people.

    So, in a sense, this article does not surprise me. You can see his character in his products: something simple, unimaginative and retrogressive, aggressively marketed as the height of sophistication.

    China’s Huweai is pretty much at the level of an i-phone, but its market price is much much lower and of course it carries android, so exploitation costs zero. For more advanced needs, there’s Samsung.

  2. Steve Jobs seems like someone that Ayn Rand would be a so-called ‘Frienemy’ (friend + enemy) with, since his is very much like what she idolized. In many ways Jobs personifies the subjectivism of both Rand and Nietzsche – the strong, the innovative, the willing – make the values and all others who are not such must suffer the values created by them.

  3. “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.”
    This is THE definition of a psychopath.

  4. Yes, excellent, with quotable lines — e.g., “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.”

  5. You might be smug too if God spoiled you with such an abundance of natural beauty (Yosemite, Big Sur, CA girls), great weather, great wine, excellent surfing, excellent athletics, the richest farmland, great rock and roll (an original American art)…I spent a third of my life in LA County, the next third in the OC, now living in Colorado. Yes, the smugness can be really annoying, but being totally spoiled is not easy to overcome. God Bless.

  6. Why ought one be afraid when one has the Gospel, the sacraments, and living as a witness of God’s love?

    Simply put: don’t buy Apple products.

  7. “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.”

    What is wrong with calligraphy inspiring one to make things beautiful? Why throw out the wheat with the chaff? In the technical world, Apple’s products are the ones that other companies are trying to emulate, and it is because of their pleasing esthetics.

  8. @Dave — “This is THE definition of a psychopath.” Actually, it is more the definition of the True, or Positive, Barbarian, as Chesterton described in The Barbarism of Berlin. “The definition of the true savage does not concern itself even with how much more he hurts strangers or captives than do the other tribes of men. The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.” I am convinced, though, that all nations are now controlled by and mostly populated by Positive Barbarians.

  9. I’m curious about your view of the flip-side of Jobs’ character.

    California is an interesting place. It’s always seemed to me that the people it really belongs to are the men and women who work in the fields, mow the lawns, clean the houses, and generally take care of it. The original inhabitants having succumbed, for the most part, to various plagues.

    I suppose I have known a lot of people with terrible characters. To the extent I know myself, there are more than a few things that beg correction.

    I know only a few people who have accomplished significant, worldly, things. No one, of course, that remotely approaches Jobs’ stature. It doesn’t seem to be an expression of their beautiful and well developed characters that these acquaintances have made their small marks on the world. More an expression of their strength of personality, coupled with some kind of notable intelligence and hard work, and also a bit of luck. These positive attributes leave plenty of room to be a jerk, and do not preclude the possibility that aspects of their humanity will remain stunted, or develop slowly. Concentration on one thing often entails ignoring others, particularly those that might get in one’s way. Other people, for instance.

    It’s often the case that we find those that have accomplished significant things to be personally deficient in various, and sometimes egregious, ways. We are all people, after all. The man that repaired my furnace last year did a fine job, but also seemed to be succumbing to alcoholism. He was probably hard to work with, and not altogether delightful at home.

    I suppose it’s important, given Jobs’ public stature, to point out that he was not a paragon of virtue. But please, what captains of industry are? Henry Ford? The Walmart family? Saints are rare in this milieu. Not that they are common anywhere.

  10. @Hank — Thanks for the admission that very few, if any, “captains of industry” are also “paragon[s] of virtue”. Not all people who call themselves conservative — a word which seems to have lost most of its meaning after the collapse of Communism, opposition to which held very different wings of the movement together — are able to make such an admission. Some people become “captains of industry” by being particularly clever and industrious, but there are also plenty of examples of those who have risen to the top by “stepping on” other people, by shady-at-best business practices, by sweetheart deals with governments, by schmoozing influential friends, or by inheritance (which is no sin, but no claim to person virtue, either).

    In other words, we need to recognize that the market is what the market is, but that it is not infallible even in utilitarian decisions, and it is completely useless in ethical or moral decisions. The value of a product or service is not the same thing as its cost. More importantly, let’s stop saying, for example, “Donald Trump is worth $3.9 billion.” That’s what his estate is worth when he is dead and gone; it says nothing about how much or how little help he was to others or how much or how little he will be missed, and it completely neglects the immense claim to value of each human life — even the severely disabled.

    None of this should be that shocking. Unfortunately, a surprisingly large number of people do not think it is enough to have Capitalism as an economic system; they have it as a religion as well, with CEOs as their bishops and the wealthy as their saints.

  11. Bruce, I’ve waited for several days to put anything into public discourse about your fine essay. It hits me so squarely in the gut that I didn’t want immediately to jump up and down yelling “right arm!” and “hairy legg!” and all the other Stan Evans parodies of 60s language that express extreme approval. I mean, who does that creep think he is, passing himself off as the next creator, a god in chi-chi blue jeans, by implication and explication denying everything that allowed him to make his machines in the first place? It is true, probably, that many men of genius (which turns out to be a very limited genius, indeed) are excessive, and egomaniacs, and are convinced that the rules do not apply to them (Mr. Singer stole the sewing machine, and lived for many years with two separate families within blocks of each other!), but the generation of which Jobs was a part is unique (at least in our republic’s history) in the contempt it has for that which enables it to be self-indulgent. OK, rant aside, I think you pull all the strands together. Jobs could have come from no other place and time, and you understand it because you had to summon the will and the FAITH to fight it off and sort out the worn-out toys to find the permanent tools. Thank you for this, and now, of course, we will both return to the realcon agenda, which is to find the Good, the True, and the Beautiful even in what His Appleness has wrought.

  12. Cruickshank, the Victorian moralist-artist also kept two families bigamously and unaware in a few blocks of one another! Much is new to me here, none surprising. Superb, Bruce, and thanks.

  13. Fascinating Article, Mr. Frohnen. I can’t say what is worse, the countercultural Hollywood “revolution” of Los Angeles, or the countercultural tech “revolution” of San Francisco and its surrounding areas. I can’t wait to read your next article describing the flip-side of Jobs. I wonder, what is it perhaps, about this upbringing and attitude of his that gave him so much success? Was it despite his character flaws, or because of them? Or is his success as a technological innovator, inventor, and business altogether separate from his spiritual nature? Perhaps his involvement in Apple’s success is not as big as we think it is? Obviously he is a “Co” founder of the company. Wozniak was the other founder, who soon decided to leave Apple behind. However, see this quote from The Apple I sold for $666.66. (Wozniak later said he had no idea about the relation between the number and the mark of the beast, and “I came up with [it] because I like repeating digits.”) Jobs and Wozniak sold their first 50 system boards to Paul Terrell, who was starting a new computer shop, called the Byte Shop, in Mountain View, California.


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