From what we know, Steve Jobs appears to have been the ultimate unmediated man. Though obviously terrifically bright, he barely worked his way through the institution of high school. Then he failed to navigate his way through community college.
According to his biographer, he completely rejected his father, even on his deathbed. When his long-term partner gave birth to his first child, he fled, leaving her to struggle on welfare for years. In the mid-1980s, when the Apple board began to challenge his absolute authority, he fled once more.
Though thoughtful, spiritually engaged and deeply committed to his pescetarianism, he appears to have been a product of one of the more unfortunate trends of the 1970s: pathological narcissism, the loosening of familial bonds, the overwhelming number of young men in their 20s living out hedonistic, drug-addled lives in the fuzzy land between their childhood institutions and adult responsibilities.
If you live your formative years ingesting LSD and roaming India, unshaped by the mediating institutions of traditional Western society, perhaps it makes sense to see the world a certain way: Life is not embedded in a series of gently gradated societal structures: family, friends, neighbors, state, nation and world. Instead, it’s just the solitary naked individual and the gigantic and overbearing state.
This lens makes you more likely to share the distinct strands of libertarianism that are blossoming in this fragmenting age: the deep suspicion of market regulation, the strong belief that unions and charities are suspect, the fervent devotion to profit, the assumption that corporate privilege should be supreme. You’re more likely to support a single celebrity pseudo-charity like Bono’s Product Red, as multi-billionaire Jobs did.
It’s logical, given this background and mind-set, that Jobs would sacrifice American industry to build his technology empire in the sweatshops of China. Even if he was not able to point to any specific US labor restrictions, he was bound to have been horrified by sheer cost of domestic manufacturing. And, of course, he was right that the iPhone as we know it would not exist without laissez-faire globalisation.
But Big Government is not the only danger facing the country. Another is the rising tide of apathy, the corrosive spread of cynicism, the fraying of the social fabric and the rise of people who are so libertarian in their outlook that they have no real understanding of how to knit others together and look after the common good.
This is not a danger Jobs concerned himself with. In fact, he made everything worse.
For society to function well, there have to be basic levels of empathy and cooperation, a respect for neighborliness and deference to common welfare. By deciding to put his wealth and his ego first, Jobs betrayed all of these things.
He betrayed empathy and integrity, the foundation of all cooperative activity. He professed an ethical determination to use his unique position to better humanity. He betrayed his ethics.
He betrayed his friends. Young people are no longer trusted with the right to hack together their own computers for fear that they will threaten the established tech giants.
He betrayed his shareholders. His investors took a college dropout and elevated him to a position of incredible wealth and power. He left a potential legal – and certain moral – timebomb in the laps of those who enabled his rise to greatness.
He betrayed the cause of industry. Every time success springs from outsourcing, unemployment rises and fewer people can afford to prop up vital sales.
He betrayed the rights of all workers. If the government is pressured to wind back labor laws, industry will inevitably return to open slavery.
Jobs faced a moral dilemma. On the one hand, he had the vision and talent to humanize computers and put them in hands of average people. On the other hand, he had certain values regarding the health and happiness of all individuals as equals. Sometimes, libertarian capitalists feel compelled to infringe the rights of others. The potential of their ideas urges them to turn a blind eye towards ethical concerns.
But before they do, you hope they will interrogate themselves closely and force themselves to confront various barriers of resistance. Is the idea so powerful that it’s worth betraying human decency, circumventing the established domestic labor laws, concealing the human victims of your project in far-off sweatshops?
Judging by comments made throughout his life, Steve Jobs was obsessed with beautiful gadgets but completely oblivious to his ethical betrayals and his role in shaping a world in which so many of us no longer have jobs, cash, or hope.
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