Life is Like a Box of Fruit

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In another America, Steve Jobs was a talisman. What does his death mean for today’s downturned America, asks Ashok Malik

Apple makes Forrest Gump, the poor boy, a millionaire. He escapes the dark night of Agent Orange and runs into the sunshine of Apple
Apple makes Forrest Gump, the poor boy, a millionaire. He escapes the dark night of Agent Orange and runs into the sunshine of Apple

TOWARDS THE end of Forrest Gump, that funny, maudlin, bittersweet but quintessentially American film, the eponymous hero reaches for his mailbox, and takes and reads a letter. His former army senior and now business partner has put their money into a new company and, as Gump explains, “Lieutenant Dan got me invested in some kind of fruit company. So then I got a call from him, saying we don’t have to worry about money no more. And I said, that’s good! One less thing.”

The letter Gump holds bears the Apple Computers logo. It is dated September 1978. As film buffs have pointed out, this is one of the iconic anachronisms in Hollywood history, since Apple went public only in 1980. That pedantic detail is irrelevant to the larger story of Gump. It is implied Apple makes him a millionaire and the poor boy from Alabama finally escapes the hard memories of his single-parent, struggling-mother childhood and fulfils the American Dream. The Vietnam veteran escapes the dark night of Agent Orange and runs into the sunshine of Apple.

Steve Jobs was no Forrest Gump. Certainly he didn’t have an IQ of 75. Yet in many ways, his too was the sort of legend America likes to believe of itself, and the world likes to believe of America. This is essential to understanding the response to Jobs’ death this past week.

Was the response overdone? Of course it was, and yet it was inevitable. At 56, Jobs was too young to die and will live forever as the gaunt man in a polo neck (turtle neck, if you prefer the other side of the Atlantic) who can never grow old. In that sense, he is the John Lennon or the Princess Diana of Silicon Valley, the man we will never see with creased skin, white hair, and a slow gait as he is led to a chair by earnest grandchildren. That aside we live in a world of manufactured media images and emotions and sense of personal loss. Everything is made to order — even the Jobs condolence icon you can share on Facebook.

Nevertheless, there is more to Jobs’ life and death than copycat commiseration, or even the combined value of all the iPads and iPods Apple has ever sold. To Americans and to Americanists — those who study America as its friends, doubters, professional voyeurs or merely as bewildered outsiders — Jobs’ departure is poignant not of a man but a moment; and a reminder of how things were and perhaps could still be.

Apple was set up in 1976 by Jobs and two friends (the more famous of the two being Steve Wozniak) and started out in a spare bedroom and then a garage at Jobs’ parents’ home. This was two years before Gump bought Apple stock, and right in the midst of America’s bicentennial and mid-life crisis. The Vietnam mess was still with it. The Watergate and Pentagon Papers scandals had all but destroyed the social contract between the Washington, DC elite and the rest of the country. Morale was down. America’s obituary, written as often as capitalism’s, was being updated.

How did America recover from this? Ten years after Gump bought those Apple shares, the United States had won its big philosophical argument with the Soviet Union. Twenty years after Gump bought those Apple shares, it was completing the most prosperous and wealthcreating decade in its history, on the back of the technology boom. Not of all that started in Jobs’ parents’ garage — but in times of distress and tragedy such mythology is useful.

Steve Jobs The glory and the hysteria
Steve Jobs The glory and the hysteria

WHAT OR who built that American boom? Success has many fathers, as one famous American president put it. Two presidents, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, claim it as their legacy. So would perhaps Milton Friedman and Alan Greenspan. In a fundamental manner, however, all of that is — and all of them are — not the point.

America rediscovered itself as a land of innovation and boot-strap enterprise, of meritocracy and open doors, as the epic that renews itself. America rediscovered itself because of its little people. America rediscovered itself when the Baby Boomers and the Vietnam generation put their minds to shrugging off the defeatism of the 1970s and creating their own little Camelot. Jobs and his garage exemplified that. However overcooked, however overstated, it represents the sort of back-story, national biography and self-identity that America believes of itself. When it remembers Jobs, it reaches out for its iPad. Instinctively, it also salutes that garage.

Apple makes Forrest Gump, the poor boy, a millionaire. He escapes the dark night of Agent Orange and runs into the sunshine of Apple

Had Steve Jobs died in October 1999 rather than October 2011, would his death have appeared as dramatic? It’s a piquant question. For one, the ‘quantity of condolences’ — and admittedly an uglier expression has not been coined — would not have been as weighty in a pre-Twitter, pre-social media, still lessthan- connected planet. For another, the economic surge of the period, the dizzying numbers on Wall Street, the start-up dotcom kids with dollar signs in their eyes wouldn’t have had time to mourn.

THIS IS a different hour. Weakened by a war (or wars) it hasn’t won as easily as it may have wanted to, crippled by a recession that refuses to go away and jobs that refuse to come home, troubled by existential questions about the American way of life, of business, of diplomacy, of foreign policy, of everything, searching — as it was in 1976 — for a talismanic leader who can tell it where to go, America clings to its Cinderella moments. In death, Jobs has become that Cinderella man.

It would be so easy, wouldn’t it? Discover your next generation Steve Jobs (and Bill Gates while you’re at it), invent technologies that reverse climate change, change the despondent headlines, lift yourself up, become the nation we all want you to become and treasure you for: America’s do-it-yourself formula has been written up for it. Who knows, maybe Apple’s birth and Steve Jobs’ death were both destined to take place during one-term Democratic presidencies.

The formula is never the same though. The economic rise of the 1980s and early 1990s created manufacturing jobs. In Jobs’ lifetime, America went from being a place that made things to one that invented and designed abstract ideas before emailing them to China. Apple itself has led this shift in the past 20 or 25 years. Any new new America is not going to be like the old new America. Jobs, former practitioner of an at least notionally egalitarian counterculture, ended up seeking profit for the few more than employment for the many.

Perhaps he just grew up. Perhaps he just grew out of what he once was, as Forrest Gump did, as his America did — and as their America will. And must.

Ashok Malik is Contributing Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]


The Wolf, the Herd, and the Apple

Is it just innocence, ignorance or some other bizarre instinct that lies beneath the mass grieving for Steve Jobs, asks Nisha Susan

Groupthink Shanghai customers queue up for the iPhone 4 in September 2010
Groupthink Shanghai customers queue up for the iPhone 4 in September 2010
Photo: Reuters

DE MORTUIS nil nisi bonum. Something a toga’d villain would toss off in an Asterix comic. At this moment, the Latin tag that you need is not “Don’t speak ill of the dead” but “don’t speak ill of those who won’t speak ill of the dead.” Or a tag to stop you from saying “Steve Jobs was not your chacha. Why you crying?”

Why are you crying all you #iSad Indians? Why are your front pages covered in iPuns? Why do you love Jobs when as a nation you prefer to buy the BlackBerry and the Galaxy Tab? Why are you posting long Facebook posts about how the Apple logo is making you burst into tears or about the first time you used an iPod? How did grief get so aspirational?

Around the world where Apple products may or may not have dented the market, many rivers have been cried over the past few days. It was left to Richard Stallman, the American programmer and software freedom activist, to make a dissenting noise: “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died. As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Presumably sharp pins are being stuck into Stallman dolls all over the known world right now.

Ghost in the machine Jobs is still Apple’s mascot
Ghost in the machine Jobs is still Apple’s mascot
Photo: AFP

OVER THREE decades, Steve Jobs has helmed a corporation that has created many products, marvellously functional and elegant (and beloved to designers and filmmakers everywhere). Apple has created products that are leaps of imagination — leaps even for a generation that has been witness to the most enormous technological revolutions. Jobs has been a great and creative businessman — an inspiration for every size of entrepreneur.

Jobs has also been Darth Vader to the open-source movement by giving us hermetically sealed products. You can’t tweak ’em. You can’t fix ’em. You can only use software that Apple will profit from. (Don’t say it’s not virus-friendly. Any free Linux OS will ensure you never have viruses). Your Apple product is the golden god at whose feet you lay digital offerings. Jobs has also been a fiercely old-style billionaire entrepreneur — uninterested in philanthropy, secretive, invested in micro-managing and against the let’s-all-pull-togetherteam American managementspeak. Like every other embarrassingly large corporation, Apple too seems to have its share of Chinese sweatshop skeletons. But in our eulogical madness, Jobs is not just a talented and influential CEO. He is the man currently upgrading heaven.

One way to escape the embarrassing elegies is to go back a few years to when Jobs began his fight with cancer. Journalist Tom Junod wrote intriguingly in 2008 of Jobs’ need for control, tracing it back to his earliest loss of control — of being an adopted child. Jobs’ story can still be richly mined for such allegories. But a richer vein lies in the slavish displays of adoration since he died. What childhood trauma do we attribute #iSad to? Did we collectively hit our heads as babies?

JOBS IS all about his aura of individualism. We explain him as one does a great artist — his clothes, his abruptness, his temperament. Only we should reconfigure him as an artist who filed lawsuits on everyone else who used ‘his’ paint stroke.

The defence of Jobs is first astounding and then illuminating. It goes roughly like this. He was an autocratic boss but that’s okay because he was brilliant. His products are over-priced but that’s okay because he was brilliant. He was cool because his products are cool. His products are cool because he was. Apple products often don’t have basic features you take for granted in a competitor’s (no USB ports in iPads, no stereo Bluetooth in the first iPhone). But they are cool. So you run to spend your money on the next version, out next year.

You can’t fight cool. Charisma is notoriously opaque and elusive. It was once terrifying for some fans to discover Madonna had a stylist, that she didn’t ‘reinvent herself’ all by herself. It must be similarly horrible for a fan to dwell on Apple’s media management and well-financed creation of cool. Good PR inflates our leniency for artistic genius and hands it over to a business.

In our eulogical madness, Jobs is not just a talented and influential CEO. He is the man currently upgrading heaven

A fiercely anti-big dam engineer with the Narmada Bachao Andolan once confessed: “Sometimes I’d look at the Sardar Sarovar dam and think, it is so f**king beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.” This traitorous moment has been echoed for many who are critical of corporations but are also seduced by Apple. Lawrence Liang, Bengaluru-based legal researcher and IPR expert, laughs when he says, “Jobs’ crowning glory is how he’s made people who are otherwise copyleft fall in love with Apple products. Through technology he’s won the war on behalf of capitalism.” Liang describes massive patent lawsuits with which Apple (and cascadingly, other companies) has tried to gain control over everything from user interfaces to dropdown menus. Filing a patent has changed from being a claim of innovation to a hunger for ridiculous monopolies. It’s like your patenting the French braid and everyone now paying to wear hair that way. Recently, Apple laid claim to the two-finger swipe for viewing online content on the iPhone — its patents are that narrow. Another Apple patent is for “Conserving Power By Reducing Voltage Supplied To An Instruction-Processing Portion Of A Processor”. Delete the jargon and you get: Apple claims to have invented the physics of saving power by supplying less voltage to a circuit. Last year, it reportedly filed a case against the Taiwanese company HTC using this astounding patent. These patents have mounted like nuclear stockpiles. So that we now have the average smartphone governed by 4 million patents.

This sort of patent war, Liang adds, is buoyed by consumer habits. Software is not like toothpaste or soap. The time and effort we invest in learning a technology isn’t factored into the proprietary software debate. Simple example. Try mailing anyone a text attachment not in a .doc format and await the protests to resend in a ‘normal’ format. The technological lock-in of products is partially created by their own users.

Technological innovation is now firmly controlled by corporations. Critics rue the cathedral model where innovation takes place within corporate heirarchies, but it is time to forget the idea of innovator as a wildhaired, leaping-out-of-bathtub genius, a descendent of Da Vinci or Edison. The boy/girl in the garage with the itch to take things apart and make it better is now working in a corporation like Apple.

AS JOBS’ life is curated pixel by pixel, his two sets of standards emerge. One for himself — a passionate belief in self-actualisation. And a second one — a cog-in-the-wheel existence for the consumers and employees harnessed to meet his goals.

Here is one Jobs anecdote. Jobs’ engineers came to him with the first iPod prototype. They waited, unsure which phase of the infamous ‘hero/shithead rollercoaster’ they were going to hit. Jobs pronounced: It’s too big. They argued it was as small as possible. What happened next is what Mogambo would’ve done if he was in Silicon Valley. Jobs dropped the iPod in an aquarium and pointed to the rising air bubbles. And snapped, “That means there’s space in there. Make it smaller.”

Most of us dream of that cool moment in the swivel chair (of course there is a swivel chair), that walk to the aquarium and the dropping of the iPod to the gasps of lesser mortals. We dream of being The Dude — the equivalent of Zuckerberg wanting “I’m CEO, bitch” written on his visiting card. But all this dreaming is only manifested in our evermore consumption — all we are doing is upgrading our phones, imagining that we are asserting our individuality.

A recent Apple patent claims the physics of saving power by supplying less voltage to a circuit

We are ripe for the charismatic dictator who will sweep away the clutter. Spoilt by choice and terrified of mess, we adore the wolf who says ‘Think Different’ as he herds us into neat IPR-respecting, DRM-fearing flocks. Apple’s gilded cage is not that different from the British makeover duo Trinny and Susannah. In their globetrotting TV show What Not to Wear, women volunteer to have their lives, tastes and body parts insulted. At the end of the episode they all wear the little black dress or beige suit that is thrust upon them. They all cry in gratitude for the help in finding their ‘own’ style.

Imagine the magic of mass producing tight, beautiful boxes and each buyer feeling that no one else has it — that his/her experience is unique. Now imagine crying for the death of a man whose magic box you can’t afford. But cry you must because that hashtag orders you to.

In a commencement speech Jobs famously told Stanford students, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life”. Commencement speeches seem to require that sort of thing but Jobs is said to have actually lived his life by what he preached. But when it came to you as consumer and employee he tried to control your experience as much as possible.

But we can hardly blame the herd instinct on the wolf.

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.
[email protected]


Too little humanity in technology

By now the mark that Steve Jobs left on the world has been analysed sixteen ways to kingdom come. This one, by Mahesh Murthy, is perhaps the seventeenth

We now understand, far clearer thanks to the impact that Jobs has left in his wake, the need for aesthetics and consumer delight in the things we make.

What, if anything, did he influence in our technology industry? We’ll start by addressing a misnomer. My contention is that we’ve never had a technology industry in India ever and we’re only slowly beginning to see one take shape—and that perhaps Jobs is somewhat laterally responsible for making this happen. What we’ve had for very many successful years is not technology but a services industry. Let me explain.

Our government and media have for decades exulted in our apparently globally respected and fearsome “IT industry”. If I was to take the current headcount of just TCS, Wipro and Infosys together that probably amounts to about half a million folks. Add the next few dozen companies or so in the pecking order and we’ll edge closer to the 2-million mark. A number no other country in the world can boast.

So why, then, do we have virtually no Indian technology products? What software by Infy or TCS or HCL or Wipro or Cognizant have you ever used? Nothing, right? The point is that we’ve almost never designed or made technology products ourselves. Someone on the other side of the Pacific always has and, like nice coding coolies for the most part, we’ve faithfully built it for them, patting ourselves furiously on the back for excelling in things like six sigma and processes and delivering projects on time. All very nice, but nope—that does not us a technology-strong country make, no matter what NASSCOM tells our leaders and the press.

This was brought home to me some time ago when one of the managers at a company I’d invested in—a bloke who studied at an IIT and worked at one of these IT giants—hired some graphic designers for his team whose work turned out to be ugly crap. After repeated client rejections of work we dived into the matter and I happened to ask the question “So what criteria did you use to hire these people?” And the answer came back “proficiency in Photoshop”. To clarify further, I asked “And if you need to hire writers, would you use the criteria of ‘proficiency in Microsoft Word’”? He hesitated for a moment and then it struck me—the truth was probably yes, he would.

We’ve always used proficiency in a tool in India as a proxy for talent in the field. But the truth is that our likelihood of producing great technologists is about as dependent on the number of people who know how to write code—as is our likelihood of producing Booker Prize winners based on the number of people who know how to use Microsoft Word. In other words, there is no connection whatsoever.

Hence if you look around, you might see that we simply haven’t produced many great technology products because we don’t know how to design them.

A technology product, or indeed any product, solves a human problem, or offers a human being a pleasure of some sort. So to be able to come up with a product idea, you have to start with understanding human needs. Where’s the gap? Where’s the opportunity?

This is perhaps where a Jobs has begun to make an impact in India.

Tens of thousands of our engineers have now owned an Apple product of some sort, and wondered at the beauty and the integrity of the design. They’ve visited the apple.com site in droves—last I saw it was visited twice as often from India as the Nokia site, though our population of Apple phones is about 0.1% of our population of Nokia handsets.

And, yes, we’ve wondered.

Why can’t our products or even websites sites be beautiful? Only now have we begun to see a few corporate websites move away from the stultifying 800 by 600 pixel little rectangles with images of the globe overlaid on stock shots of men in suits shaking hands. Only now are we beginning to see websites that use fonts and space creatively, sites that use Ajax and Ruby on Rails and design in simple operational joy.

Only now are we beginning to see companies giving a damn about product design. Our water purifiers are beginning to look more like gadgets worthy of being in Poggenpohl-equipped kitchens and less like final year Mechanical Engineering projects from students at NIT Warangal. Our cars are beginning to look less like relics of Soviet-era design and more like artifacts from the late 20th century. Eventually they should come closer to the present-day design ethos.

As an investor, we now point our investee companies first to design firms who specify branded environments before we build out the first retail outlet or create the first consumer product. But it’s not that our design firms are there yet. Many of them are slavishly derivative in what they come out with, and many more think design is about ‘having a cool visual’ as opposed to answering a brief innovatively. Only now are we beginning to shape out our first few cult brands.

The big difference is this – we now understand, far clearer thanks to the impact that Jobs has left in his wake, the need for aesthetics and consumer delight in the things we make. This is the beginning of the road to having a technology products business.

This is the left-brain-right-brain collaboration that Steve Jobs did so effectively inside his own head, and it’s where we’re only now waking up to the possibilities. Jobs famously talked of the origins of the competitive advantage for Macintosh computers being the fact that he studied calligraphy at the college that he had dropped out of. He even said more explicitly that the iPad was a fusion of scientific and liberal arts thinking. How many of our entrepreneurs grok that yet? How many of their HR managers are still hiring for software design and graphic design positions using norms like “knows HTML” and “knows Photoshop”? The less that do, the further ahead we can move as technologists and market-driven people.

Only now are we beginning to see abbreviations like UI and UX (user interface and user experience) come up in job listings. Sadly, precious few places teach such skills, but hey, it’s a start.

The problem with our technology industry has not been a lack of technical qualifications. Quite the opposite. It’s the lack of a humanities outlook to technology. Thanks to Jobs and Apple, we are beginning to slowly correct that.

Mahesh Murthy is an entrepreneur and investor.
[email protected]

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