Monday, October 10, 2011
The accolades for Steve Jobs have been non-stop, coming from all quarters. This strikes me as especially interesting, given that business leaders aren’t generally in favor at the moment, as is evidenced by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Jobs was praised on MSNBC as a “populist” business leader, and as an “artist.” He was hailed on Public Radio as someone that took ugly, albeit practical, computers, and made them beautiful and user-friendly. There have been some dissenting voices, but not many. My guess is that this can be partly accounted for by the fact that cultural elites tend to be Apple users.
Jobs' capacities for creating beautiful consumer goods cannot be denied. I say this as a MacPower Pro user (on loan from my workplace) and an iPod owner, who has never been completely bitten by the Apple bug. The MacBook is smooth, sleek, and very expensive. Yet my Toshiba netbook works equally well for most functions. Unlike the MacBook, when I wanted to upgrade the operating memory, I just popped the bottom off, and slid in the card. And I still can't use WordPerfect on my Mac.
Personal preferences aside, was Apple as transformative for the American economy as the Jobs accolades suggest? No doubt, Apple had a huge impact on a segment of the consumer market, and indirect effects that ricocheted through the entire personal computing industry. One of Apple’s most significant contributions was through iTunes, which, along with heavy-handed copyright enforcement, contributed to the decline of free music download services, and may have saved what's left of the recording industry.
But Apple, itself, did very little to contribute to the overall American economy in terms of job creation. One study found that the manufacturing of iPods created 41,000 jobs globally. Practically nothing in the grand scheme of things. Most of these jobs, 27,000 of them, were created offshore, while the remaining 14,000 were in the U.S. itself. (By contrast, General Motors, still employs over 142, 000 people in the United States alone, with millions of others connected through networks of support services.)
Granted most of the income generated, by Apple, was in the U.S. But that indicates the reverse side of the equation, that most of the offshore jobs were under poor working conditions, with low pay. Yet, even in the U.S., the division of labor was pronounced, between high skilled technical jobs and managerial positions, and low end retail jobs, with less than 6,000 are in the former category. While relatively few people actually work at Apple, many of those that do are well-compensated.
Apple then intersects with deindustrialization in a couple of ways: The company did very little to reverse the decline of reasonably well-paying manufacturing jobs U.S. In this respect, it mirrors the digital economy in general, which often creates great wealth, while doing little to redistribute it through job creation. Also, Apple would not have been possible without deindustrialization. Apple products would not have been affordable, even to high-end consumers, without the low-wage manufacturing infrastructure that preceded it, and set the stage for, the digital revolution.
The Apple aesthetic, and Steve Jobs flair for public relations, certainly served the company well. In the 1990s, Nike came under heavy attack for its use of sweatshop labor, which led to a decade long battle with anti-globalization and labor groups. While criticisms have been leveled at Apple for its labor practices, it never experienced anything like Nike’s problems.
My intention here is not to speak ill of the dead, but to point out that the focus on one individual to the exclusion of the structural economic features, diverts attention from larger trends. And keeping an eye on the latter is especially important during a period of economic dislocation, as we are currently experiencing.
We should all celebrate Steve Jobs creativity, imagination, determination, and his equanimity in the face of death. We should recognize and appreciate the important contributions that Apple has made to digital culture. But I think we should also maintain a sense of perspective.