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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 42, Dated 22 Oct 2011
    CULTURE & SOCIETY  
    STEVE JOBS

    The Wolf, the Herd, and the Apple

    Is it just innocence, ignorance or some other bizarre instinct that lies beneath the mass grieving for Steve Jobs, asks Nisha Susan

    Groupthink Shanghai customers queue up for the iPhone 4 in September 2010

    Groupthink Shanghai customers queue up for the iPhone 4 in September 2010

    Photo: Reuters

    DE MORTUIS nil nisi bonum. Something a toga’d villain would toss off in an Asterix comic. At this moment, the Latin tag that you need is not “Don’t speak ill of the dead” but “don’t speak ill of those who won’t speak ill of the dead.” Or a tag to stop you from saying “Steve Jobs was not your chacha. Why you crying?”

    Ghost in the machine Jobs is still Apple’s mascot

    Ghost in the machine Jobs is still Apple’s mascot

    Photo: AFP


    Why are you crying all you #iSad Indians? Why are your front pages covered in iPuns? Why do you love Jobs when as a nation you prefer to buy the BlackBerry and the Galaxy Tab? Why are you posting long Facebook posts about how the Apple logo is making you burst into tears or about the first time you used an iPod? How did grief get so aspirational?

    Around the world where Apple products may or may not have dented the market, many rivers have been cried over the past few days. It was left to Richard Stallman, the American programmer and software freedom activist, to make a dissenting noise: “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died. As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Presumably sharp pins are being stuck into Stallman dolls all over the known world right now.

    OVER THREE decades, Steve Jobs has helmed a corporation that has created many products, marvellously functional and elegant (and beloved to designers and filmmakers everywhere). Apple has created products that are leaps of imagination — leaps even for a generation that has been witness to the most enormous technological revolutions. Jobs has been a great and creative businessman — an inspiration for every size of entrepreneur.

    Jobs has also been Darth Vader to the open-source movement by giving us hermetically sealed products. You can’t tweak ’em. You can’t fix ’em. You can only use software that Apple will profit from. (Don’t say it’s not virus-friendly. Any free Linux OS will ensure you never have viruses). Your Apple product is the golden god at whose feet you lay digital offerings. Jobs has also been a fiercely old-style billionaire entrepreneur — uninterested in philanthropy, secretive, invested in micro-managing and against the let’s-all-pull-togetherteam American managementspeak. Like every other embarrassingly large corporation, Apple too seems to have its share of Chinese sweatshop skeletons. But in our eulogical madness, Jobs is not just a talented and influential CEO. He is the man currently upgrading heaven.

    One way to escape the embarrassing elegies is to go back a few years to when Jobs began his fight with cancer. Journalist Tom Junod wrote intriguingly in 2008 of Jobs’ need for control, tracing it back to his earliest loss of control — of being an adopted child. Jobs’ story can still be richly mined for such allegories. But a richer vein lies in the slavish displays of adoration since he died. What childhood trauma do we attribute #iSad to? Did we collectively hit our heads as babies?

    JOBS IS all about his aura of individualism. We explain him as one does a great artist — his clothes, his abruptness, his temperament. Only we should reconfigure him as an artist who filed lawsuits on everyone else who used ‘his’ paint stroke.

    The defence of Jobs is first astounding and then illuminating. It goes roughly like this. He was an autocratic boss but that’s okay because he was brilliant. His products are over-priced but that’s okay because he was brilliant. He was cool because his products are cool. His products are cool because he was. Apple products often don’t have basic features you take for granted in a competitor’s (no USB ports in iPads, no stereo Bluetooth in the first iPhone). But they are cool. So you run to spend your money on the next version, out next year.

    You can’t fight cool. Charisma is notoriously opaque and elusive. It was once terrifying for some fans to discover Madonna had a stylist, that she didn’t ‘reinvent herself’ all by herself. It must be similarly horrible for a fan to dwell on Apple’s media management and well-financed creation of cool. Good PR inflates our leniency for artistic genius and hands it over to a business.

    In our eulogical madness, Jobs is not just a talented and influential CEO. He is the man currently upgrading heaven

    A fiercely anti-big dam engineer with the Narmada Bachao Andolan once confessed: “Sometimes I’d look at the Sardar Sarovar dam and think, it is so f**king beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.” This traitorous moment has been echoed for many who are critical of corporations but are also seduced by Apple. Lawrence Liang, Bengaluru-based legal researcher and IPR expert, laughs when he says, “Jobs’ crowning glory is how he’s made people who are otherwise copyleft fall in love with Apple products. Through technology he’s won the war on behalf of capitalism.” Liang describes massive patent lawsuits with which Apple (and cascadingly, other companies) has tried to gain control over everything from user interfaces to dropdown menus. Filing a patent has changed from being a claim of innovation to a hunger for ridiculous monopolies. It’s like your patenting the French braid and everyone now paying to wear hair that way. Recently, Apple laid claim to the two-finger swipe for viewing online content on the iPhone — its patents are that narrow. Another Apple patent is for “Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor”. Delete the jargon and you get: Apple claims to have invented the physics of saving power by supplying less voltage to a circuit. Last year, it reportedly filed a case against the Taiwanese company HTC using this astounding patent. These patents have mounted like nuclear stockpiles. So that we now have the average smartphone governed by 4 million patents.

    This sort of patent war, Liang adds, is buoyed by consumer habits. Software is not like toothpaste or soap. The time and effort we invest in learning a technology isn’t factored into the proprietary software debate. Simple example. Try mailing anyone a text attachment not in a .doc format and await the protests to resend in a ‘normal’ format. The technological lock-in of products is partially created by their own users.

    Technological innovation is now firmly controlled by corporations. Critics rue the cathedral model where innovation takes place within corporate heirarchies, but it is time to forget the idea of innovator as a wildhaired, leaping-out-of-bathtub genius, a descendent of Da Vinci or Edison. The boy/girl in the garage with the itch to take things apart and make it better is now working in a corporation like Apple.

    AS JOBS’ life is curated pixel by pixel, his two sets of standards emerge. One for himself — a passionate belief in self-actualisation. And a second one — a cog-in-the-wheel existence for the consumers and employees harnessed to meet his goals.

    Here is one Jobs anecdote. Jobs’ engineers came to him with the first iPod prototype. They waited, unsure which phase of the infamous ‘hero/shithead rollercoaster’ they were going to hit. Jobs pronounced: It’s too big. They argued it was as small as possible. What happened next is what Mogambo would’ve done if he was in Silicon Valley. Jobs dropped the iPod in an aquarium and pointed to the rising air bubbles. And snapped, “That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

    Most of us dream of that cool moment in the swivel chair (of course there is a swivel chair), that walk to the aquarium and the dropping of the iPod to the gasps of lesser mortals. We dream of being The Dude — the equivalent of Zuckerberg wanting “I’m CEO, bitch” written on his visiting card. But all this dreaming is only manifested in our evermore consumption — all we are doing is upgrading our phones, imagining that we are asserting our individuality.

    A recent Apple patent claims the physics of saving power by supplying less voltage to a circuit

    We are ripe for the charismatic dictator who will sweep away the clutter. Spoilt by choice and terrified of mess, we adore the wolf who says ‘Think Different’ as he herds us into neat IPR-respecting, DRM-fearing flocks. Apple’s gilded cage is not that different from the British makeover duo Trinny and Susannah. In their globetrotting TV show What Not to Wear, women volunteer to have their lives, tastes and body parts insulted. At the end of the episode they all wear the little black dress or beige suit that is thrust upon them. They all cry in gratitude for the help in finding their ‘own’ style.

    Imagine the magic of mass producing tight, beautiful boxes and each buyer feeling that no one else has it — that his/her experience is unique. Now imagine crying for the death of a man whose magic box you can’t afford. But cry you must because that hashtag orders you to.

    In a commencement speech Jobs famously told Stanford students, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”. Commencement speeches seem to require that sort of thing but Jobs is said to have actually lived his life by what he preached. But when it came to you as consumer and employee he tried to control your experience as much as possible.

    But we can hardly blame the herd instinct on the wolf.

    Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.
    nishasusan@tehelka.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 8, Issue 42, Dated 22 Oct 2011
 

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