Paul Nitze: Jobs was more hungry than foolish
October 8, 2011
Every Woody Allen movie has its “snob takedown” moment, and it arrives early in “Midnight in Paris.” Michael Sheen, looking like a rat in a cheese cave, plays a pedantic culture vulture as he lectures Rachel McAdams and Owen Wilson on the virtues of 50-year-old Bordeaux.
This has become a sort of Allen signature. It’s his way of saying, “Listen, I know I’m a raging elitist, but hate me less for mocking myself.” It captures everything we feel about people who buck the popular culture and insist on indulging in something highbrow, expensive and rare. Americans like to stamp out connoisseurship for the same reasons we pretend social class doesn’t exist.
Which is one reason the outpouring of love for Steve Jobs is such a wonderful thing. Jobs was the rara avis of American life – a totally unapologetic tastemaker who changed the culture. He was a strange and disruptive figure who could only be from this country, while also scrambling a lot of our cultural fault lines.
Nowadays we don’t even let our deceased stars settle into sainthood before we pick at their reputations. Jobs was a tyrant who “basically destroyed” his third-grade teacher, according to his classmates, and who tore into his coworkers. He had a complicated personal life. Charitable giving was not his strong suit.
None of that goes to the heart of what made him so tough to digest. To get to that kernel, we have to reckon with the way that Jobs rewrote the history of the 1960s. Some people have said that Barack Obama is a “bridge” past the culture wars, but I’m not buying it. We’re still fighting the same battle between (to borrow from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) the subjective and the objective.
Conservatives fight for the objective, the old truths, God and the founding fathers. To them the 1960s marked a disastrous victory for subjectivity and relativism, a time when Jimi Hendrix was equated to Bach, and a Native American rug might be on par with the Mona Lisa. They hated hippies for being lazy and dropping out and spending other peoples’ (mostly their parents’) hard-earned cash.
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The Steve Jobs of the early 1970s would have been squarely in their sights. He dated Joan Baez and spent months living on an ashram. He tried LSD, shaved his head and dressed in traditional Indian clothing. Even later in life, he rooted his worldview in the counterculture. During his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, he said the Whole Earth Catalog was “the bible of [his] generation.” Its motto: “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
Left out was his emphasis on hungry over foolish. His wasn’t the ’60s as we’ve come to know it. He wasn’t interested in churning organic ice cream or roasting fair trade coffee. He was a tycoon who made everyone with a piece of Apple wildly rich. Think about this: If Jobs doesn’t return to Apple in 1997, more than $300 billion in wealth is never created. That’s the equivalent of an entire year’s growth in the American economy.
What about the egalitarianism of the 1960s? You know, everyone rolling around in the mud at Woodstock and forgetting their differences. Well, egalitarianism didn’t have much play in Steve Jobs’ universe. You’ve never been belittled until you’ve been taken down a few pegs by a super-geek like Jobs.
If there is one word that Jobs’ friends and colleagues keep using in postmortem interviews, it is “excellence.” Jobs was obsessed with excellence. He had the zeal of a street-corner preacher when it came to quality. This wasn’t the “everyone gets a trophy” excellence that conservative pundits love to mock. This was “my product is better than yours and I am going to crush you and steal your market share” excellence.
Every iPhone that rolls off the assembly line and goes into its clamshell box is a statement of Steve Jobs’ taste. Jobs was a businessman, he was a designer, he was a crazy-good (though untrained) software engineer, but above all else he was a tastemaker. He brought the mindset of an old-time studio boss to Silicon Valley, and it worked.
Apple was famous for the anarchic spirit of its advertising, from the 1984-inspired ad for the first Macintosh to more recent spots featuring Buckminster Fuller and other eccentrics who “broke all the rules.” But what made Apple was the fact that after Jobs broke the rules, he made new rules, and he enforced them with an iron discipline.
It will be years before we sort out all of the ways that Jobs has influenced us, but much is clear. He was an American original who could have come from nowhere else. At a time when we fear we’ve lost our competitive edge, he showed us how to keep the American engine humming. And by hooking millions of us on Apple products that reflected his taste, he strengthened our larger cultural fabric, and brought a fractious country a little closer together.
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