Steve Jobs: qualified praise

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Women are designers. They wear paint. Make homes. Disproportionately groom and mold children and creatively care for elders. Around the world they regularly plan, fetch, improvise and present meals that sustain most humanity. Some poorest among them with only an imagination have transformed literal rags into artistic riches showcased for the world. They are creatures of detail. Aesthetics. Vision. Of how things can be.

In the U.S. they reflect a broad spectrum of detailed, daily manufactured, original personal presentation, via coifs, wardrobe, accessories, accentuations and aromatics  that steadily and functionally change, sometimes over hours in a day.  In business they have expanded ways to lead. Uncharacteristically dissented in managerial ranks.  And otherwise stretched their environs with an alternative.  Including in the highest  halls and malest of intellectual domains: Though celebrated for their discovery of the double helix, James Watson and Francis Crick themselves knew the discovery was overwhelmingly based on the unparalleled creative crystallographic photography studies and research of  molecular biologist Rosalind Franklin.

Yet women constitute 30% of the design teams of BMW and only 20% of those of GM. They are roughly 80% of the New School’s design student body, however.  They are sold more products, durable goods and appliances than their ranks in corporate American industrial design suggest they ever helped develop. Are famously scarce in A&R and production teams in American music, the stage, and major film.  Do not lead in representative governance or think tanks despite garnering most advanced degrees in the U.S.  Are scarce in management consulting. Are a minority among venture capitalists. Are still news to direct major orchestras and lead new interpretations despite playing powerfully in them. And do not feature prominently in notable design juries.

One conclusion:  A greater supply and diversity of creativity and vision exists than markets and bastions of creative vision often reflect.

Steve Jobs.

Much celebration has ensued over the contributions of the Apple founder and CEO, who died Wednesday.  My comparably muted tone here may be biased, as past an electron microscope or medical innovation I’m never too moved by gadgetry. I assume it transforms.  I expect it to do stuff I want done.

Personally noteworthy in the celebrations, however,  is what I see as Jobs’ main but overlooked lesson, and it’s a plain one: Kids who aren’t hungry—as in need food—who have love, and whose mental hardware isn’t bogged down running sociological surveillance programs for perpetual survival—i.e., Whistling Vivaldi—have the option and mental space to dream. Not on special occasions, but by default. And to nurture it. As a centerpiece of their endeavors.

Jobs’ childhood implies little encumbrance:

  • He was adopted. A much planned parenthood, that is. Attentive.
  • He had peace. He wasn’t soaked in poverty’s daily theatre refereeing bickering family and wondering over the hour when a next limit would give; wasn’t wrestling with whether enough of the same colored or gendered or classed people were in the lab, on the sidewalk, or in work environments; and wasn’t trying to dampen inside himself this or that innate interest because people who looked like him or came from his town lacked critical mass in those professions–or like Rosalind Franklin’s father–didn’t approve of his gender doing it.
  • He had time. Time for a hobby. And deep immersion. Mental space to think luxuriously on electronics and computers.
  • He had options. He could drop out of college. Without it being ruinous.  Without sending his family into chaos for how essential it was for his whole demographic’s chance for any success.  He was a white male. He could be hold-up in a garage toying with dreams, and he could gamble. Society wouldn’t lock him out. And investors wouldn’t rule him out or refuse to ever loan him his  first $250K. And he knew it.
  • In college, his 7-mile weekly pilgrimage to the beloved Hare Krishna temple was no luxury, but still unconcerned with being interrupted by law enforcement—seemingly 5 years within Dr. King’s assassination. And it’s a 7-mile trek along which every woman would have thought 112 times about being abducted; 236 times about being raped and 180 times about being dead.

Our culture holds some romanticism about a young wandering and adventuring Jobs. Entirely unintentionally, I believe, even from Jobs himself.

As a lifelong student of science I must also accept Jobs’ own word on his creative inspiration and from whence a main part came: LSD. Which he named as one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. That’s up there. Hence, even Jobs’ vision, long hailed, may have less to do with him and more with the lasting effects of a mushroom.  For Jobs reportedly said of Bill Gates that he “would be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.” Boldly: LSD is such a big deal to vision that Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, arguably born to an unfettered demographic,  left some success on the table because he didn’t use it.

A bunch of kids—many who even share demographical conveniences like race and gender and sexual orientation with Jobs, never mind many who don’t—simply lost the geographic lottery and got born not in Frisco but Appalachia. And quietly supporting recent celebrations—which evidence a classist Apple fervor and disappointingly at this time in American economic Occupy Wall Street history with record setting capitalistic disenfranchisement, ravaging corporate power asymmetry and poverty class  conversions—is the working assumption that Jobs, in near Jesus fashion, is simply extra extra special vs. the rest and that the specialness is endemic to him. That his phenomenal success is delinked from any facilitating context.

Elitism did attach to Apple products over Jobs’ reign:

And registered on twitter after his death:
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For the record not even the newspapers published Jobs’ death as their main story the next morning as Occupy Wall Street protests commanded the cover of the New York Times, e.g., and deaths of two Civil Rights figures—Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Professor Derrick Bell—on the same day, both of whom helped change the world, got tweeted.

Point being praise can seem genuinely swollen: Jobs was a smart, straight, creative, white male who enjoyed timely access to capital without traditionally required credentials and to supportive managerial talent, who used acid,  had doting parents, and was born to the unparalleled American creative class of San Francisco at a unique time—and let’s be clear: San Francisco is another country.  Frisco vs. Dillon, SC is the US vs. China. Controlling for all and switching 1 chromosome his twin sister likely wouldn’t have fared so well.

Missing this context means we don’t factor its absence into the lives of too many kids who are trapped in Kentucky, invisible behind gender, have inattentive overworked parents and the rest. In America there are still sieves and a bunch aren’t getting through. Steve Jobs was born on the right side, and had better odds as a white male adoptee drop-out illicit drug user in San Franciso in 1955 with an ultimate rare cancer diagnosis, than many healthy biological, law abiding, minority kids with Ivy League degrees in 2011 born to richer families in unanimously socioeconomically lagging Dixie. Yes, his company fired him and he founded or owned his companies, but my bet is on average the workplace has dished out more personal career penalty to functional healthy women having babies than it has to an absentee man getting chemo.

The lesson isn’t for kids to dream big or “think different” and be like Jobs—and frankly, such mantras ring cheap detached from real heterogeneous contexts in which people live. It’s to recognize the environments all kids need–clean and safe and creative and loving and intellectually stimulating and unencumbered—because they really can do so much of the rest.  Accomplishment isn’t just results. But results relative to a starting line and the inherent frictions or lack thereof along the charted course.  Jobs’ lesson isn’t how great the stuff he did was, or how he “changed the world”, I say. It’s that fundamental unencumberment, enables the doing of so much of the great stuff now celebrated in the first place.

I also have the impression that when Jobs left the room people often didn’t feel better about themselves. Clearly, he was an effective manager, but by this impression if correct, not an ideal one to me.

Jobs’ life was rightly his own. To design to his choosing. But I judgmentally fantasize a bolder leverage of his station and descent may have found him not giving his last energy to Apple, but using his platform to persuade corporate America on to more creative and productive courses.  Or like Randy Pausch personally laying out a path for generating his leadership as widely hailed—and impressively, Apple University may impersonally do just that.  Or like the healthy, “less broad” Bill Gates, eradicating a disease from the third world so kids got chances to live long enough to get foolish, never mind  “stay foolish”, a mantra that in a socioeconomically aloof Applesque way assumes for practical purposes one is first middle class.

More judgmentally I suspect of Jobs’ severest mourners that if one is religious-fervor ecstatic over an Apple product today and much over the age of 6, one is overdue: For volunteering at a women’s shelter. In a literacy program. Cancer ward. Or something.


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