The recent remarks by Britain’s chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, about Steve Jobs and his role in driving worldwide consumerism – the attachment of happiness and fulfillment to owning modern products – were refreshing in their bluntness.
I suspect the rabbi, like me, was uncomfortable with the lionizing of Jobs after his death last month as some kind of revolutionary or noble ideologue who sacrificed to change the world, rather than just a brilliant and driven businessman. His success derived not just from a mastery of electronics engineering and software application but in tactics and marketing. In a field that largely focused on peddling efficiency to businesses, he went outside the box to focus on products that make productivity more fun, and fun more efficient. He deserves credit for that from his shareholders and anyone who has benefited, as I have, from using a Mac or iPod or other Apple products.
But Rabbi Sacks seemed to lay the blame for our society’s rampant consumerism, in an age when most of us can’t afford to keep up, squarely on Jobs’ shoulders, sarcastically saying “the consumer society was laid down by Steve Jobs coming down the mountain with two tablets, iPad and iPad 2, and the result is we now have a culture of iPod, iTunes,i, i, i. When you’re an individualist, egocentric culture and you only care about 'i’, you don’t do terribly well.”
First off, his chronology is wrong, since the iPod, iTunes, the iMac and iPhone all came before the 2010 addition of the iPad tablet. But he’s also off base in assuming we didn’t have a rampant consumer culture before Jobs was born, let alone before he went up to the mountain at Apple.
It probably hit its stride with the dawn of the TV age and the growth of Hollywood, as commercials and movies began to bombard us with both overt and subliminal messages about what we needed to acquire to be happy. The auto market is probably the best example. I always laugh at the holiday season commercials that show brand new SUV’s gift-wrapped in the driveway as Christmas gifts, wondering how many hundreds of people these spots are targeting.
For years, the majority of print ads or commercials we see have not been for products we must have, like bread, milk, socks or affordable houses, but for beer, fast food, luxury cars, cosmetics, toys and jewelry. We can blame these hucksters for hawking their wares, or we can blame ourselves for falling for it, running up billions of dollars in collective credit card debt for things we don't need and can't afford. It's the most skilled con men who not only take your money but get you to thank them for taking it, and even stand on line to give it away. (A brilliant new ad by rival Samsung shows Apple fans waiting for the newest iPhone, worrying that "if it looks the same, how will people know that I upgraded?")
Lord Sacks is not the first rabbi to posthumously criticize Jobs. In his weekly commentary, which appears on the Huffington Post and many other websites, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a Jobs fan in the early 90s, recalled how he traveled to Jobs' office in Redwood, Calif., to try and get him to speak at the rabbi’s Jewish society at Oxford. Jobs, true to form it seems, blew off the request, and an assistant noted “That’s just Steve. He can be a jerk.”
Walter Isaacson’s biography, Steve Jobs, doesn’t brush over his subject’s abrasiveness, despite having exclusive cooperation from the man himself, who made no apologies for his manner.
Rabbi Boteach suggests that being a bully, disliked by people who worked for him as well as by his adversaries, was part of what made Jobs special. The good part is you always knew where you stood with him. And while this is “immoral and excusable,” it produced results. Apple today is the second biggest corporation in America, second only to Exxon/Mobil and has more cash on hand than the federal government.
One of its signature products, the iPhone, is the world’s single most popular smartphone, despite not being demonstrably better than a slew of competitors with the same features, and even having some glitches, like reception and battery life.
After his comments were interpreted as a jab at Jobs, Rabbi Sacks sent out a clarification that "The Chief Rabbi meant no criticism of either Steve Jobs personally or the contribution Apple has made to the development of technology in the 21st century. He admires both and indeed uses an iPhone and an iPad on a daily basis. The Chief Rabbi was simply pointing out the potential dangers of consumerism when taken too far."
How far is too far is left to our interpretation, but when we take the two rabbis’ comments together we can see a symmetry between the notion that Jobs was something of an aggressive boss and the idea that Apple, under his control, was similarly driven to ruthlessly pursue its own interests, not just by driving demand but also by suing competitors.
Corporate ruthlessness is socially acceptable, while being less kind to others and lacking humility on a personal level is frowned upon. And yet we are left to wonder if one can exist without the other. The fact that Jobs got an adoring sendoff from the public suggests that deep down most of us wish we could accomplish what he did.
Could Apple survive with a nice guy at the helm? We’ll soon see.
It’s the times that make the person, and Steve Jobs was the right “jerk” at the right time for Apple. Linking non-essential goods to happiness didn’t begin with him. He was just better at it than almost anyone else. And it surely won’t end after his death.