R.I.P. Steve Jobs, an Insanely Great Capitalist

Categories: Tech
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1955-2011
As I write this, many of my Facebook friends are expressing their profound sadness, and actually issuing "thanks" to Steve Jobs, who died on Wednesday. I'm feeling the same way.

It is astonishing that such sentiments can be felt, at this moment in history, about the CEO of any American corporation. But Jobs has been astonishing us for decades, and through his products and his legacy, he will continue doing so for decades to come.

What's more astonishing still is that Jobs can evoke such feelings despite the fact that he could be, well ... kind of a prick. That's another of his legacies. In recent decades, we've finally come to fully realize that even pricks can do great things, because we are all, to one degree or another, pricks.

It all comes down to why we are pricks. If it's for the right reasons, it can be excused, even applauded. But we should avoid being pricks like former Countrywide CEO, fraudmeister, and mortgage cheat Angelo Mozilo. Or sociopath Andrew Breitbart. Or Dick Cheney.

Wealth, fame, and power are shallow goals, pursued by shallow people. What Jobs taught us is that greatness should be the goal, and maybe those other things will follow and maybe they won't. He sometimes treated people terribly -- employees, corporate partners, even customers. By itself, his bad behavior wasn't laudable. But at least it was mainly in the interest of creating (or defending) great products. If your interest is in wealth, fame, or power for their own sake, few people outside your family will be posting weepy tributes to you on Facebook when you die.

Jobs wasn't an altruist (at least, not publicly). He was a profit-seeker. He was in it for himself, and he never pretended otherwise. But people who accused him of "commodifying our dissent" -- passing himself and Apple off as "revolutionary" purely for marketing purposes -- miss the point entirely, and they insult both Jobs and his customers. He didn't hang a pirate flag on the Apple HQ building and present his products to the public as world-changing and paradigm-smashing simply in order to sell more shiny baubles to gullible consumers. 

He did that because he really believed that his products were world-changing and paradigm-smashing (which they were, and are). He designed them that way, quite purposefully. He wasn't cynical about this, and he wasn't faking it. The cynics believe he was the cynic, and that all his customers were sheep he took advantage of. This is decidedly not the case. I don't know many Apple users who don't complain about this or that aspect of Apple products, or who think of Jobs as a god. We know what's good and what's bad about the products, and we make the rational decision that, in general, they're much better than what the competition comes up with. 

And most of us know that Jobs could be a prick. But I've followed his career closely almost from the beginning -- I can say without hesitation that when it came to his products and their effects on the world, he was 100 percent sincere. He meant the famous "1984" Mac commercial, and he meant it when he lured John Sculley away from Pepsico by asking him: "Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?"

Lots of pricks have been making fun of the Occupy Wall Street people. In doing so, they concocted what they thought might sound like a legitimate reason for their criticism (as opposed to just ridiculing hippies, which was their real aim): The lack on the part of the protesters of any specific "demands."

But they do have demands, even if those demands are somewhat amorphous and even if the protesters aren't so great at defining what they are demanding. Their demands are that we stop pursuing these shallow goals and, as a society, start pursuing something more meaningful. In general, the Occupy people aren't calling for an overthrow of the capitalist system; they're calling for the greedheads, the famewhores and the powermongers to be stripped of their outsized influence over our culture, our government, and our economy. They're calling on us to reshape our values. To have values. To care. The details of reforming, say, the financial system, the economy or the government would naturally follow from that.

Many of my Facebook friends who expressed profound grief over Jobs' death also have been expressing support for the Occupy demonstrations. It's really something to witness -- the depth of emotion all these left-wingers feel for the head of a giant American corporation. Jobs was one of the most successful capitalists of our time, and yet he's hailed as a hero by left and right alike. This is because his goal was simply to create products that were Insanely Great. In a world where few people -- particularly in business -- truly care about what they do, he truly cared. By thinking that way, he became Insanely Rich, and when he died, his company had an Insanely Large cash balance in the tens of billions of dollars. But few begrudged either Jobs or Apple for their wealth, because their priority wasn't to get rich -- it was to achieve Insane Greatness. Getting rich was a byproduct. That's how capitalism should work.

Imagine if Wall Street were to think that way: No bullshit mortgages aimed at fleecing the poor and the ignorant. No bullshit derivatives that do no good for anybody but those who profit from them. No asset bubbles that threaten to bring down the world economy. Bankers would put all their efforts into serving their customers the best they possibly could (as they once did). And they'd still be rich. You can apply this to any number of other American industries and institutions, so many of them so sick: media, retailing, manufacturing, education, government.

Jobs' pursuit of quality before wealth, fame, or power was rooted in his spiritual leanings, which were Buddhist (or at least those two things came from the same place.) In that tradition (as in other Eastern traditions), the root of all evil is fear. And fear is precisely why people pursue wealth, fame or power above anything else. Jobs knew where that fear was rooted, and why it was so harmful. He once said: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose."

So let's take Steve Jobs' greatest lesson to heart. We're all going to die, so let's go balls-out and try to create something great, or to care as deeply as we possibly can about what we do. It might be the only thing that can save us.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

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49 comments
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Payton_vege
Payton_vege

Amazing write-up! This could aid plenty of people find out more about this particular issue. Are you keen to integrate video clips coupled with these? It would absolutely help out. Your conclusion was spot on and thanks to you; I probably won’t have to describe everything to my pals. I can simply direct them here!

Ba
Ba

As Steve Jobs is now in heaven ...the Apsaras are now called iTems !!

Dmassie
Dmassie

I totally agree. I worked at NeXT and I talked to Steve Jobs perhaps 3 to 4 times every week back in 1988. I remember a tiny conversation with one of the driver engineers and Steve Jobs and me. The driver engineer said that we should try to have all of the connectors on the computer be exactly the same, but Steve said, "No, they should all be different.". The driver engineer said, "Huh? why?" and Steve replied in a sincere animated but friendly way that "if they are all different then the user can't get confused mover which connector goes where"

I remember this vividly because Steve clearly had thought about this seemingly minor issue very carefully. It was actually a pretty technical issue as well. But it meant a lot to him. And he was totally persuasive without being a "prick".

He clearly hated connecting up cables the wrong way and getting confused and frustrated. He wanted the right solution.

Bravo.

Reparazjorge2004
Reparazjorge2004

The Village Voice is a corporation too. The business structure is not mainstream but advertisers pay. What is going to happen when one of its woners dies? A great capitalist will have kicked the bucket? If you are not poor you are a capitalist.

Jade4953
Jade4953

Another example of great journalism that seems to be your skill everyday Dan Mitchell !

CptZEEP
CptZEEP

re: "Jobs wasn't an altruist (at least, not publicly)"

Way to miss the obvious :

Bono Defends Steve Jobs After Criticism About Apple Ex-CEO's ...

Largest donator to the RED product campaign? Nah - piss on him before the body is cold.

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Elizabeth Frantes
Elizabeth Frantes

So brilliant, planned obsolescence on crack  . .. get people to buy all new systems, who cares about all the ewaste? 

Norsdypoluan
Norsdypoluan

With all the cash he got, do you think that he will not stand in line what ever he would like to go on heaven or hell.His created just great only very short of time and only benefit to very short of people.So his cash is not benefit a lot of people.Now he got the high title on earth R.I.P.

Justine Grover
Justine Grover

Great article. The connection you made between the protestors at wall street and the lovers of Steve being the same people was really insightful and so true.

BerryBery
BerryBery

Thanks! My sentiments exactly :)

Marietjie Luyt
Marietjie Luyt

Well, what about the fact that Apple outsourced its manufacturing component mainly to China, where the gadgets were manufactured and assembled in unregulated sweatshops? Here is an article setting out the dismal conditions at Chinese suppliers used by Apple.http://peoplesworld.org/rotten... Think about it.

berniemooney
berniemooney

Dan, I may very well have misinterpreted what you were saying. It's just with all this hagiographic (oh yeah that's a word. I just looked it up) tributes to him today you would have thought he was the second coming. I'm angry at that. So, I overreacted. Or maybe not. Maybe when my emotions cool down, I will re-read your piece. Somehow I think it will still piss me off. As to him giving money in private, he very well could have. I knew a guy when I was a teen who everyone thought was the biggest asshole, but he came to my dad, a small grocer, and paid for holiday meal fixings for local poor people and my dad was sworn to secrecy about where it came from. Anyway, thanks for responding.I appreciate that.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Yeah, I think my "Steve Jobs was a prick" story might be a little less hagiographic than some of what you've been reading -- and hopefully a bit more circumspect than either the uncritically fawning stuff that's all over the place today, or the kinds of enraged, spittling rants we're seeing in comments sections, including this one. As I said in the piece, few people, including Apple fans, thought of him as a god. Thanks for your thoughtful response, and giving it another think.

Dan Green
Dan Green

Bernie. You nailed it...And don't always be temperate.Ponder this the next time you let your emotions fly:“Modest, industrious, benevolent, temperate: is that how youwould have men? Good men? But to me that seems only the ideal slave, the slaveof the future” –Friedrich Nietzsche....And keep agitating. People need to remember we don't have to exhalt the rich and powerful.

Dan Green
Dan Green

Just becase your focus is on making a great product does not free you from moral culpability. This article is as shallow and sociopathic as Jobs was...I guess Foxconn is ok because it was all in the name of making Great Products....Apple is America. A shallow brand that really means, and stands for nothing other than making money. As a software engineer I can tell you, there is nothing exceptional about any of Apple's products...That's what brands are about: experience. Apple makes you think you are having an experience when you use their products, when the fact of the matter is that they are just phones and computers. Jobs was just a man, not a giant among men...And as far as men go he was a sociopath, like most greedy power mongers.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Whenever I hear a software engineer, a Web designer, or an IT manager say they know more about what users want and like than users do, I am reminded of why so much software, so many Web sites, and so many corporate networks are so awful.

Dan Green
Dan Green

I'm not impressed by a brand. Like Brand Obama, or Brand Apple, or Brand Starbucks, or Brand Fox News, or Brand Cain. Brand Culture is just junk culture. Like Brand politics. Obama, Miracle Whip, Twinkies ..... Only the herd are impressed by Brand....Clearly you are impressed by brand Danny.

anonymous2222
anonymous2222

What are you impressed by, Dan Green? You are so quick to be a naysayer. a devil's advocate, but you do not present anything positive that could replace or supersede that which you condemn. It reminds me of watching ever politician ever... so quick to judge and condemn, and then mute if he/she should need to defend him/herself with an actual point. It's sad.

The Greatest
The Greatest

I disagree that "the homebuyers weren't ripping anyone off" ... a huge driver of the real estate bubble/crash was house flippers.  These unsophisticated investors were buying multiple unfinished houses and condos (not primary residences) sight unseen, for the sole purpose of turning them around for profit and padding their retirement accounts.  Not coincidentally, they were the first ones to strategically default on their mortgages when the industry went south.

phil28
phil28

Simply brilliant.

RalphJ_Kramden
RalphJ_Kramden

Jobs was as much a greedhead as those on Wall St. He once awarded himself $70 million at a board meeting that never took place.Defrauded both the government and his shareholders.  This was theft and people are doing time for stealing thousands from banks let alone millions.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Do you have a citation for this allegation, or did you just make it up? 

BerryBery
BerryBery

I reckon he just pulled it out of his you know what :)

Maggie0405
Maggie0405

Steve Jobs shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence as the Wall Street Bankers (crooks). He made things. He sold things. He made the world a better place. He was a true capitalist, not a speculator/gambler. BTW, don't forget the government's collusive role in this as well; both Democrat and Republican. Obama has many Wall Street donors, and the Republicans are just as beholden to them as well. Occupy should go back to its original focus and stick to it: Get the big money out of our nominally Democratic government: Lobbyists, campaign finance, etc.  

berniemooney
berniemooney

So, it's okay to be a mean prick as long as you are a visionary and create innovative products. Got it.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

I don't think you got it at all.

berniemooney
berniemooney

No, I think I did. He was a "good" capitalist who made things. It doesn't matter that his private police force searches private homes with full cooperation of the publicly funded police force. It doesn't matter that Apple is like a modern day "company store."  It doesn't matter that he couldn't give a rat's ass for his customer base. In fact, he perpetuated this myth of Apple being the "rebel," etc. while all the time acting like any good railroad baron of the 1800s. There was one difference between them and him. They at least gave back. There is not one single instance of Job's philanthropy on record. Not one.  And if any other corporation acted like Apple, those Occupy Wall Street supporters would be lambasting them like they do the others. That article was a big rationalization.

I was watching PBS news tonight and you would have thought he was the second coming.  There wasn't one issue addressed that I raised here. Not one negative thing and there are plenty. There was one dolt on that show who said that Jobs didn't ask people what they wanted, he gave them things they didn't know they needed. Sheesh, The fact is they didn't and don't need it. It's nothing more than design, innovative design, but simply design nonetheless and he charged them through the nose for it all the while creating a closed, propietary system. He didn't invent the tablet and he didn't invent the iPhone. As he said in an interview a few years ago,Apple, "Shamelessly steals..."

All these tributes salute him for changing the way, we as a society communicate. Yeah, for those who can afford it. When asked why he didn't make lower end more affordable products, he dismmised it saying, those are the customers we want. Arrogant much?

He is to be applauded for his vision and innovations, but that's it.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

That's pretty much all I applauded him for. And I explicitly and quite clearly said that he wasn't an altruist, that he sought profits, and that he was in it for himself. I really don't think you quite understood what I was saying here, and given all the other feedback I've received, and judging by your interpretation, I don't think that's my fault.

As for philanthropy, there have been reports that he's given away lots and lots of money, but nobody knows for sure because he was an extraordinarily private guy. But that's completely beside the point anyway. I wasn't arguing here that he was a saint. 

LiJenn
LiJenn

Just a wonderful commentary. You described Mr. Jobs so eloquently. I would like to believe he would be honored.

elizabeth
elizabeth

Excellent. Jobs well done, Mitchell.

Kartsjunk
Kartsjunk

And where are Apple products made and at what margins? Gimme a break!

Sevenbirds
Sevenbirds

Yes, let's not forget that while Jobs got rich, Chinese workers making his iGadgets were mired in poverty and kept committing suicide.

phil28
phil28

You have no idea what you are talking about. He created some of the best jobs in China, filled by smart, ambitious people that took great pride in working in Apple-developed facilities.

phil28
phil28

Dan,I work for a competitor and have spent months in China at these factories over the last several years and living among the workers. You don't know what you are talking about. Yes, there have been terrible tragedies, but considering there is a workforce of 300,000, the population of a medium sized city, the statistics are not quite what you make them appear to be. If you've been there first hand and are not just spouting off what you read I'll be happy to discuss this with you without calling names.Phil

Dan Green
Dan Green

Yes. They loved creating Apples products so much Phil that they jumped off Foxconn's building to kill themselves. Foxconn put nets around their building so more people wouldn't jump off....But only after 12 had jumped to their deaths....Phil. You are a victim of marketing. You are brainwashed. Start to evaluate how you think. And by the way...To Dumb*ss Dan who wrote this... To call Steve Jobs a Buddhist is unfathomable. Buddhists seek to lead people away from suffering, not actively develop institutions of pain and torture. Jobs in direct opposition to Buddhist teachings was extremeley "attached". Attached to power and control and his illusion...his brand...Apple. Dan Mitchell, you are a disgrace to those of us named Dan. Please change your name....Maybe to Richard...Or Dick for short.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

And if Jobs wasn't getting rich, they'd all be living in middle class comfort?

Ohmi
Ohmi

billions in cash, not millions

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Whoops, of course you're right. Fixing now. 

Zeldasayre2000
Zeldasayre2000

The people who took out those risky mortgages were motivated by greed, same as the people who sold them the mortgages.

Dan Mitchell
Dan Mitchell

Sort of, in some cases, but that's really part of the overall problem. And being "greedy" about wanting a home isn't quite the same as being greedy about wanting to add to your giant pile of cash. Also, the homebuyers weren't ripping anyone off, while the bankers were. 

Scott Siesennop
Scott Siesennop

The homeowners didn't rip anyone off? They speculated on real estate with little or no money down. When things didn't work out for them, they defaulted, sticking the banks and taxpayers in general with the bill. There was consumer demand for the bulk of those loans.

jackterrier
jackterrier

This is the best essay/comment I've seen on Jobs yet. 

dawdler
dawdler

Interesting connection.  Well done.

I still think the Occupy movement needs to help average Americans understand how they can act. 

Someone on another thread around these parts suggested "move your money to a Credit Union".  That makes sense and it's a concrete action that people can take today, rather than just an ideal like "justice for all" or "don't be greedy".

I think your assumption that the details of reform will "naturally follow" is a big question mark at this point.

John from Minneapolis
John from Minneapolis

Dan, you are a frickin' brilliant commentator. I'm always delighted to run across your writing.

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