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Did Steve Jobs make the world a better place?

Did Steve Jobs make the world a better place?

As you may have read, Steve Jobs resigned yesterday as CEO of Apple. To get the obvious out of the way, Jobs was both a brilliant businessman and a technological visionary who created products beloved by millions, myself included. We should all wish him nothing but the best in his retirement and his ongoing battle with cancer.

However, I can’t help but think back to 2008, when Jobs’s longtime rival Bill Gates left Microsoft to concentrate full time on his philanthropic efforts. Whatever you think of the approach of the Gates Foundation, it’s hard to think of a business leader who has made more of a commitment to using his wealth to make the world a better place. Jobs is lauded too, but more for his highly anticipated keynote addresses to rapturous adherents.

In its farewell to Jobs, TechCrunch invokes Wilhelm Stekel’s quotation, "The mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of a mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." But what exactly is the cause Jobs lives for?

His biographer Leander Kahney has one answer:

Jobs’ ambition was to make high technology universal. At the beginning of his career, he pushed his buddy Steve Wozniak to design in 1977 the first personal computer for ordinary people. The Apple II, one of the first mass-produced home computers, had to have a nice, well-designed case and be up and running straight out of the box. This was at a time when other companies were selling PCs that had to be soldered together by the user.

Jobs had the same vision and ambition — to bring technology to the masses — in every year that followed.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, that might have been true — but today, it’s hard to argue that Apple’s expensive products are egalitarian. Its personal computers are user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing, but there are plenty of cheaper, more practical alternatives out there. And as this XKCD cartoon points out, as more and more of what we want from computers moves online, the actual device you’re using is going to become far less important.

As for the iPhone, it’s great. I love mine. But is it improving the world in some tangible way? If there’s a phone driving innovation among the global masses it’s the exceedingly generic Nokia 1100, not anything with a touch screen. Even the upwardly-mobile in the developing world tend to favor the open membership plans and free messaging service provided by BlackBerry.

I think that because Jobs is a cool guy who wears jeans to work, practices Buddhism, and took acid in the 1970s, and because of the craftsman’s care Apple puts into its product design and marketing, there’s a tendency to think that Apple had some social utility beyond creating pretty, high-end gadgets. (Apple itself has helped spread this perception since its famous 1984 ad, which promoted the choice of buying a Macintosh as a way to combat a drab Orwellian future.)

Several days before the retirement announcement, the popular tech blogger Anil Dash wrote (my emphasis):

So, who is this man? He’s the anchor baby of an activist Arab muslim who came to the U.S. on a student visa and had a child out of wedlock. He’s a non-Christian, arugula-eating, drug-using follower of unabashedly old-fashioned liberal teachings from the hippies and folk music stars of the 60s. And he believes in science, in things that science can demonstrate like climate change and Pi having a value more specific than "3", and in extending responsible benefits to his employees while encouraging his company to lead by being environmentally responsible.

Every single person who’d attack Steve Jobs on any of these grounds is, demonstrably, worse at business than Jobs. They’re unqualified to assert that liberal values are bad for business, when the demonstrable, factual, obvious evidence contradicts those assertions.

It’s a choice whether you, or anyone else, wants to accept the falsehood that liberal values are somehow in contradiction with business success at a global scale. Indeed, it would seem that many who claim to be pro-business are trying to "save" us from exactly the inclusive, creative, tolerant values that have made America’s most successful company possible.

I’m not sure exactly what Dash means by "values." Apple does make great products. So do many companies run by cigar-chomping, Ayn Rand-reading Republicans. (Or even Nazis!) Apple also subcontracts work to a company where working conditions are so dire that nets had to be installed to prevent its workers from committing suicide. It uses minerals mined from one of the world’s deadliest conflict zones. Its ethics record in working with the Chinese Communist Party is hardly stellar. In contrast to Gates, he’s notoriously disdainful of philanthropy, both corporate and personal.

As Will Wilkinson of the Economist sarcastically tweeted yesterday, "Ruthlessly competitive, patent-monopolist, multi-billionaire executives are worth fawning over, if they’ve got design sense."

Of course, Apple is a business, not an NGO. But compare its public image with that of another iconic brand: Nike. Both dominated their competitors through the use of iconic design, both inspire rabidly loyal followings — American teenagers have been murdered for their Nikes; Chinese kids have sold organs for iPads — and both outsource production to developing countries in order to skirt U.S. labor laws. But while Jobs is feted as a progressive icon, Phil Knight is a punching bag for activists like Michael Moore. (Will the Huffington Post ever run a column titled, "My Air Force 1s Changed My Life"?)

Again, I say this not to bash Jobs. I think his talents at technology, design, marketing, and business are worthy of admiration. But I do think it’s worth asking why so many people who are normally suspicious or disdainful of large, profit-maximizing corporations are ready to shower this one with adulation.