Guest Post: The Social Genius Behind Steve Jobs

6 Oct

In the following post, Arthur Goldhammer, who runs the blog French Politics, brilliantly reminds us of the immense social process that made it possible for Steve Jobs to do what he did. What we especially like about the post is the connection it draws between two competing visions of the economy and the political implications that follow. The dominant view of Jobs’ celebrants is not far off from a crude, Randian view that the economy is populated by a few heroic geniuses like Jobs, for whose existence we should all be thankful, and who create value individually, in isolation, and ex nihilo. All that is required is a free market and the profit motive. The reality, as Goldhammer points out, is considerably different. For Jobs to invent what he did required the genius and labor of huge numbers of people, large amounts of publicly-financed research, and people sharing in the intrinsic rewards of joint collaboration and invention. Genius arises out of and in relation to what social cooperation makes possible, not against society.


By Arthur Goldhammer

In one of many recent articles on the late Steve Jobs, Dean Baker wrote (comparing Jobs and Alan Greenspan): “One made us rich, with a vast array of new products and new possibilities. The other made us poor with a long lasting downturn that could persist for more than a decade.” I want to enter a mild demurrer against the hagiographic depiction of Steve Jobs as the heroic entrepreneur, which one finds in nearly all the obituaries. My quarrel is not with Apple’s overseas labor practices, deplorable as those may have been. That is a separate issue. It is with the whole idea of the heroic individual entrepreneur who supposedly creates an industry ex nihilo and “makes us rich.”

To say this is to take nothing away from Steve Jobs, who was brilliant at what he did. But what he did was essentially to package the genius of tens of thousands of others, who worked not for extraordinary shares of immense profits or for rock-star celebrity but for love of the work itself. When the technologies are in place, it is inevitable that a Jobs will come along and find the key to commoditizing them, but creation of the technologies is a long, slow, and above all social process, which owes more to the actions of a far-sighted state and to basic research pursued in universities and private labs than to the genius of any entrepreneur.

Think of all the technologies that go into a Mac or iPhone: semiconductor physics, computer languages, ingenious algorithms, liquid-crystal displays, networking protocols, advanced modulation techniques, etc. etc. Steve Jobs was responsible for none of this, and the vast scope of the collective effort that goes into making each handy consumer device is a story that needs to be told by a historian of technology, not a hagiographer. Otherwise we risk confusing the achievement of the individual, remarkable as it may be, with the social achievement–the civilization–that makes it possible.

The singling out of the individual achievement is to my mind an essentially right-wing trope. It encourages the kind of thinking that leads people to argue that the tax system must preserve the profit incentive that is supposed to motivate these”job creators” and “wealth creators.” But the fact is that emphasizing the economic incentives to individuals ignores the importance of providing other kinds of incentives to the kinds of people who are not motivated primarily by money (and I think that Jobs himself surely was one of those for whom money was a secondary consideration). No matter how much we enjoy our iPods and iPhones, we should be careful about attributing their existence to individual “genius” rather than to collective effort and the education and organization on which that effort depends.

16 Responses to “Guest Post: The Social Genius Behind Steve Jobs”

  1. Corey Robin October 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm #


    Interestingly, the most sophisticated theoretician of the entrepreneur, Joseph Schumpeter, understood all that you say here. Yet he still praised the genius of the entrepreneur, understanding that genius to be exactly what you say it is: taking all that anonymous labor and turning it into a mass commodity. But he was very careful to stress that the genius we ordinarily associate with the entrepreneur was nothing more than that.

  2. Art October 6, 2011 at 4:05 pm #

    For an interesting comment on Schumpeter, see Bob Solow’s book review:

    Today’s Schumpeterian growth theory, pioneered by Philippe Aghion, actually abstracts Schumpeter’s point by reducing the role of “entrepreneurship” to a Poisson distribution whose rate parameter is an endogenous variable of the economy. In other words, the rate of innovation that makes old capital obsolete and radically restructures “taste” is itself a function of investment in the economic subsystems that I single out, such as R&D and education. Genius is the result not of a divine spark but of the organization of the society and economy. An interesting twist on Solow’s own growth theory, though Solow seems not terribly impressed by it.

  3. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 4:47 am #

    The problem with this is not the discussion of technology, but the refusal to acknowledge design. It’s ironic that a translator of literature would ignore the fact that Jobs as a designer was first and foremost an architect, not an engineer. Architecture is a kind of poetry, and poets are authoritarians of the worlds they create. That’s not a defense of Jobs as such, it’s simply an observation of why he’s important as an individual in the sense that Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, and Mark Zuckerberg are not.

    What was interesting about Apple under Jobs was that the attention to specifics limited its ability to expand. Apple’s model has been a large scale form of boutique capitalism. Google’s amorphous interest in “content” over form has allowed for continuous expansion that makes it much more dangerous.

    • Art October 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm #

      The problem, Seth, is that this translator of literature used to be a physicist and mathematician and sees more poetry in the Dirac equation or the algorithm for the Fast Fourier Transform than in the sleekness of the iPod or iPad. And I beg to differ about Sergey Brin, whose search algorithm is a far more important contribution to productivity and well-being than any of Jobs’ creations.

  4. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    The logic of google is technocratic authoritarianism. It will have to be nationalized, or better internationalized, sooner or later. As to your general point the aesthetics and politics of Platonism itself is authoritarian. Democracy is founded in theater not science. Theater is the culture of the secular and imperfect.

  5. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    Also to add: most of the ease of use that we now take for granted in non technical computing, the social activity including this exchange, originates with apple and Jobs’ intuitive decidedly non-geeklike understanding of human behavior.

    • Art October 10, 2011 at 3:10 pm #

      The last comment is quite wrong. Apple had nothing to do with social networking, which actually originated in the need of physicists to communicate among themselves. Tim Berners-Lee was employed by CERN, the European nuclear research facility, when he invented HTTP. Vinton Cerf, usually called the father of the Internet, was working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, when he developed the basic protocols. The first browser, Netscape, was born at an American physics research facility. Apple had nothing to do with any of this.

  6. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 4:35 pm #

    The pull down menus, and other common properties of the user interface originate or were mastered by apple. You’re talking about technology “under the hood” but but most people are not auto mechanics. They use cars they don’t fix them. Jobs understood this. Design is not surface. Productivism is neoliberalism, and technical progress is not moral progress. That confusion is what allows brad delong to argue that non wealthy urbanites should make do with cardboard tomatoes: we all make sacrifices for progress. But in the end the only progress we all share is the march towards the grave. I prefer to ‘progress’ as slowly as possible.

    I don’t like billionaires but I prefer Jobs to those who want to rule the world more than he did. Apologies for the writing. I’m on a mobile

    • Art October 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

      The pull-down menu was used in Lotus software on PCs before the Mac existed. The mouse was invented at Xerox PARC. This will be my last reply to you.

  7. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 7:44 pm #

    Look up the history of the graphical user interface. Follow the line from parc to apple.

  8. seth edenbaum October 10, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m not arguing for the genius of shakespeare against the genius of the english language I’m arguing for the political and moral superioity of social to asocial genius. The strength and weakness of science is that its amoral by definition. The moral superiority of science as science is nil.

  9. seth edenbaum October 11, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    “The pull-down menu was used in Lotus software on PCs before the Mac existed.”
    That’s not even wrong that’s bullshit. And your tone, from the beginning… I didn’t quite catch it reading on the phone: the arrogance based on authority.
    You’re an ass.


  1. obligatory ‘steve jobs is dead’ post « leaves in the forest - October 7, 2011

    […] For my own part, I don’t think he was a saint or a monster, just an exceptionally intelligent, ambitious and lucky man (sans the whole pancreatic cancer thing) who was good at what he did, which wasn’t necessarily good for all those inevitably involved. I will say, however that these opposing reactions bring to mind the Great Man Theory debate, which I think is perfectly illustrated by these two different perspectives on Steve Jobs’ accomplishments: “Here’s to the crazy ones: a farewell to Steve Jobs” and “The Social Genius Behind Steve Jobs.” […]

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