Steve Jobs: "insanely great"?

The legend of Steve Jobs continues to grow. The boundless possibilities of a prematurely-ended ended life are now his legacy’s to enjoy: if Apple continues to succeed as it has so spectacularly since the late 90s, then he will receive the lion’s share of the credit as the man who made it happen. If it fails, the absence of his greatness will be the primary reason cited. That’s a win-win for a legacy, not that it matters to Jobs himself anymore.

Beyond the endless rumours, reviews and fawning frenzies that Apple encourages, quotes from his biography regularly appear in my Twitter timeline intended as mini-inspirations, and his commencement speech to the graduates of Stanford University in 2005 is cited as motivational material, the testimony of a man who knew how to live. Though an Apple customer, I’ve found all this a little hard to swallow.

Jobs perpetuated a circle of self-congratulation, insisting that his products were “insanely great” (reviewers usually agreed, though you’ve never seen an Apple advert containing anyone’s opinion but Apple’s, have you?) and therefore that those who used them were also superior to the rest of humanity. People happily bought into this, their lives enhanced and gilded by a shiny thing in their pocket or on their desk. That is foolishness. And whilst he was famously neurotic about the quality of the products he sold, Jobs was seemingly less bothered about the quality of the lives involved in that process, from those who lost their careers in his quick-tempered offices in California to those who lost their lives in Chinese factories. That is worse than foolishness. To go even further, whilst the philanthropy of Bill Gates is investing massively in projects to end polio, malaria, and other mass killers, Apple has stock-piled $100 billion.

And yet his customers don’t mind because he made sending email a slightly nicer experience. OK, our iProducts can do a few more things than that, but haven't they got to do a lot more to catch up with the human cost of their production?

Should we alter our buying habits? Is it even possible to find an ethically-made piece of technology? Apple may even be better than others but in reality not enough people care for equitable working conditions to be implemented across the world. Many of us prefer to be dazzled by a cheaper, newer toy than to think hard about its consequences. Questions are being asked (carefully and thoughtfully here), and campaigns do exist but they are still in the minority, overwhelmed by the same self-centred greed that so many participated in before the financial disasters of 2008 onwards, the responsibility for which we now glibly lay at the door of bankers. Will our response be the same when called to account for how our phones were made, and will that be a satisfactory answer?

Apple now seems to be dealing with the kind of scrutiny that other market leaders such as McDonald’s and Nike endured, pushing them to at least improve their practices whilst less-famous competitors didn't. This customer-driven correction is the get-out for free-market champions but it seems a little late in the day to me. It certainly is for Jobs, and for many of his factory workers.