Tag Archives: Steve Jobs

Avatars of Capital

What was Steve Job’s great­est con­tri­bu­tion to indus­try? Accord­ing to Isaac­son, he either trans­formed or invent­ed six indus­tries: per­son­al com­put­ing, desk­top pub­lish­ing, ani­mat­ed film, music, tele­pho­ny, and tablet com­put­ing. Isaac­son also notes that Jobs suc­cess­ful­ly reimag­ined the retail store in an era when bricks and mor­tar were being replaced by vir­tu­al store­fronts like Ama­zon. Fair enough. But what is miss­ing in this account is some­thing much more pro­found. Jobs rein­vent­ed cap­i­tal­ism. Or at least he advanced its rein­ven­tion far beyond the move­ments ini­ti­at­ed by the vir­tu­al eco­nom­ics of Ama­zon, EBay, and Pay­Pal. Look­ing back at the iPod, the water­shed prod­uct event in Job’s return to Apple, most attribute its sin­gu­lar suc­cess to the design and aes­thet­ics of the object itself — it’s char­ac­ter­is­tic Zen-like sim­plic­i­ty, its almost sex­u­al good looks, its leg­endary usabil­i­ty. But to do so is to engage in a fetishism of both the polit­i­cal eco­nom­ic and sex­u­al kinds. For one aspect of the iPod’s usabil­i­ty that tends to be over­looked is the way it man­aged the rela­tion­ship between the user to the music, the con­sumer to the prod­uct. As Jobs famous­ly not­ed, although you can use an MP3 play­er with pirat­ed music, you end up work­ing for less than min­i­mum wage in the time you spend find­ing, down­load­ing, copy­ing, and cat­a­loging files. Much bet­ter to have a ser­vice like iTunes do that for you. But iTunes is of course much more than a music and media orga­niz­er. It is an actu­al store — and entire inven­to­ry wait­ing to be pur­chased — sit­ting on your com­put­er, or, even­tu­al­ly with the iPhone, in your pock­et. What the iPod did was to extend the busi­ness mod­el of Ama­zon into the very fab­ric of per­son­al space, pro­vid­ing a mate­r­i­al con­duit between con­sumer and pro­duc­er, between labor and cap­i­tal. The iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad are there­fore avatars of cap­i­tal, mate­r­i­al embod­i­ments of a rela­tion­ship between peo­ple and the vir­tu­al real­i­ty known as cap­i­tal, which, by virtue of their beau­ty and ease of use, become both con­duits to and dis­trac­tions against that real­i­ty. As smart phones and oth­er devices, from cars to wash­ing machines, become  “smarter” and con­nect­ed to var­i­ous ser­vice providers, this kind of cloud cap­i­tal­ism will become more dom­i­nant. The Kin­dle Fire, which marks Amazon’s appro­pri­a­tion of Job’s dis­cov­ery, is just the start.