The Darker Side of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs I’m perhaps not the best judge of how soon is “too soon”, but in the wake (no pun intended) of the outpouring of love and accolades for the late Steve Jobs, there are some beginning to talk about the dark underbelly of Apple, and the less public side of Jobs himself.

A pair of Forbes articles agreed that Steve Jobs was a jerk, one saying that was fine and wishing he could be more of a jerk like Steve. The other was a response saying don’t emulate Steve, suggesting he may have been a borderline sociopath or a “mere megalomaniac”. Gawker felt the need to summarize What Everyone Is Too Polite to Say About Steve Jobs. The first recent article I saw on this theme was a NYT Piece on Steve Jobs which, like the others, spoke of documented child labour and sweatshop conditions at the Foxconn factory in China that produces Apple products, where indoctrination and beatings are common, and a worker died following a 34-hour shift. The tales go further, to paint Jobs as a hothead whose management style might at times be described as that of a tyrannical overlord, berating employees publicly and voluminously.

All of that is pretty clear in its level of rightness versus wrongness. Some have made note of Jobs’ apparent lack of charitable giving, but on top of that, two paragraphs from the NYT article really struck me for the type of insight they offer.

Because of its enormous strength in both music sales and mobile devices, Apple has more power than at any time in its history, and it is using that power to make the computing experience of its users less free, more locked down and more tightly regulated than ever before. All of Apple’s iDevices — the iPod, iPhone and iPad — use operating systems that deny the user access to their workings. Users cannot install programs themselves; they are downloaded from Apple’s servers, which Apple controls and curates, choosing at its whim what can and can’t be distributed, and where anything can be censored with little or no explanation.

The Steve Jobs who founded Apple as an anarchic company promoting the message of freedom, whose first projects with Stephen Wozniak were pirate boxes and computers with open schematics, would be taken aback by the future that Apple is forging. Today there is no tech company that looks more like the Big Brother from Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial than Apple itself, a testament to how quickly power can corrupt.

No tech company looks more like the Big Brother from Apple’s iconic 1984 commercial than Apple itself

I’m not sure if you can call it “quickly”, but “thoroughly” is definitely an appropriate adjective here. Apple has operated and traded on a culture of fear with Jobs at the helm, and in the pursuit of profits, has run roughshod over the weak. That said, these paragraphs express very well why I’ve historically not been a drinker of the Apple-flavoured Cool-Aid.

Is the promotion of closed systems and extension of market dominance in one area to leverage another morally wrong? Some would say yes perhaps, but for most, these areas are ethically grey at best. For me, it runs counter to the nature of the Internet and counter to the direction society is (and should be) attempting to move. It’s a strategy of hoarding based on artificial scarcity, and in several ways it’s worse than the way in which Microsoft handled its monopoly for many years.

I’ve been thinking about picking up an iPad, as it’s a very functional device that I could make really good use of. I wonder, should I think twice about it? This is a question I ask as I survey the crowd of iPhone-wielding junior ethicists who exhibit moral outrage at the thought of shopping at Walmart. But rightly or wrongly, it’s the lockdown on the device that makes me question it most. And I wonder how many people would look aghast if they were told they could purchase a beautiful designer suitcase, but would not be able to pack anything into it without first obtaining written permission from the luggage manufacturer for each specific item. It sounds absurd unless you think of any given Apple product as simply a receptacle for various forms of media.

As Apple looks to the future with new CEO Tim Cook, I hope they can chart a course that pursues technological excellence as they have in the past, but also makes the company a better workplace both domestically and overseas. Now, was Steve Jobs a genius? Many have said so, and I will not dispute the point. He exhibited immense talent in business, marketing, and design… and this is what really saved Apple since Jobs’ return to the helm. But at what cost?