Death and Change for Apple

The death of Apple’s Steve Jobs has spawned some disgusting gushy prose and punditry in the last few days. The immediate comparison to American inventors like Edison come off as especially hasty. Thankfully, this op-ed in the New York Times brings light to power. That Jobs was as arrogant as his product is successful. He had a limitless ego. He heavily critiqued failure, even his own, and didn’t tolerate fools. He proudly “knifed the baby” – Silicon Valley jargon for ditching unpromising pet projects. Among all the unquestioned praise coming his way, only a profound critic like Jobs would know how to correctly analyze his own personal failings in life. The op-ed deals with specifically how Apple has become the monolith for the status quo in computing: stripping freedom from its users and locking away the type of open source content that first made Apple revolutionary.  The true question is whether the punditry and disgusting praise of the last few days is for the Apple of 1984 advertising fame, or the Apple of hipsters, mindlessness, and closed-content. Not to mention deplorable working conditions. But more on that later.

Let’s reflect on the comparison with Edison. Much like Jobs, we have an American genius who came up with truly revolutionary developments. Mark Twain, an early tech geek, adored Edison’s recording device and novelty inventions. But, Edison owes much of his fame to the rampant theft of the true genius in the new study of electricity: Nikola Tesla – whom Edison first pilfered his ideas and then employed him at poverty wages to produce them. Edison then transformed from the developer of genius tech, much like Jobs, into a salesman. And precisely because what Edison had produced was so revolutionary, no one ever faulted him for being just a salesman and resting on his laurels.

Similarly, Jobs produced fantastic tech and transformed from computer revolutionary into an amazing salesman, tweaking his tech the same way a chef tweaks Mexican food: everything has cheese, beans, rice and a tortilla but in different configurations – pocket-size, tablet size, insultingly overpriced very-thin laptop size, etc. In that way, Apple transformed as well from an insurgent outfit into a monolith of sameness. Each new generation of the same old thing has minor differences, some with major pitfalls – like presenting false data about signal strength, containing an antenna dead-zone, tracking users without consent. Much of the tech get’s reserved by private suppliers, like AT&T or Verizon, instead of presented for all users to hook up as they please. Apple has become the disease that Steve Jobs set out to cure.

And from the op-ed on the New York Times:

As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.

I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads. I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on. He stroked the screen and marveled at the icons sliding back and forth, the Apple attention to detail in every pixel. He told my translator, “It’s a kind of magic.”


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