Overselling the Salesman: Steve Jobs

The first essay of this series was published in the Manchester Guardian. The series is available from the Hall Associated Press in paperback.

Published four years ago, M. Fealen’s ‘Overselling the Salesman’ is a witty exploration into, what Fealen identifies, as our ‘newly newly anointed apostles’: The Salesman. Having spent a number of years writing his final thesis on the fetishism of trade, Fealen approached the series as if it was “simply a travelogue”. The series is dismissed by many circles as being irreverent and columnistic. Read in isolation the series is ‘styled’ with characters ‘inspired’, rather than based, on real people, along with clear subjective interpretations of the thought patterns of the people that Fealen describes – “More Borges than Bourdieu”, as one critic defiantly put it. Beyond the alliterative qualities, Bourdieu is a convenient comparison if one is to defend M. Fealen’s series. Bourdieu’s Weight of the World contained an sizeable appendix with the raw interviews carried out for the study. The interviews alone do not provide a full reading of the context around the indviduals being interviewed. Instead the interviews provide the clear necessity for a sustained and engaged interpretation of the content of the interviews (Bourdieu would have called these interviews ‘data’, only in the last decade could this be the term one would apply to these).

Viewing Fealen’s ‘Overselling the Salesman’ as an appendix, rather than an exhibition of his thought in totality, it becomes a literal translation to the perversity of capital that he is trying to identify for us:

“Trade has been discouraged unless it creates rupture.  If your business cannot destroy and undermine existing jobs and practice, it is not a business because it is not ‘innovative’.  The language is designed to conceal the values of the hegemony at work in this epoch of ‘Rupture Value’. What is rupture is called innovation“.  M. Fealen – “Value Rupture and Exchange Fetishism”

Certainly one can critique that Fealen’s ideas are not new ground, many of his theories were explored in great detail by Boutang, Berardi or Graeber, and his perspective is majoritively from within.  He is short-sighted in his view of the structural aspects of labor’s devolvement from the mechanical to the cognitive. The accusation of irreverence is valid; with no resistance from Fealen himself. Fundamentally he argues that the system and ideology creates everyone, he cannot scale the walls that surround him – even if the vast majority of his efforts in life is to convince us that the walls are not real.

Overselling the Salesman: Steve Jobs and Apple

For those of us who are indifferent to Steve Jobs, it was simpler when he was alive. The tech giant revived the fortunes of the failing Apple corporation; an unlikely feat considering the near total domination that Microsoft enjoyed over the consumer market at the time. Indifference is difficult when faced with widespread worship. The catholics understood it and lined their churches with the sufferings of Christ; the crown of thorns; the carrying of the cross; the nails and the blood. Being indifferent when confronted with the image of the sacrifice and the gift that the messiah bestowed upon you is an affected indifference; you are burying your head in the sand.

“You’ve changed the world for good and you’ve changed it for the better. No doubt your love & vision will continue to live through the legacy of that you’ve left this world. Thank you. Steve Jobs. You’ll always be an inspiration. Still connecting the dots” https://www.flickr.com/photos/rubenerd/6216920639

That Jobs drew mankind closer to their computers is undeniable. People love their iPhones, iPads, iMacs, MacBook pros. They are capable of mourning them; in the case of the announcement of the discontinuation of the iPod people took twitter (most likely via their iPhones/smartphones in a kind of technological gun salute) to lament #RIPiPod. I can recall but one similar incident in the UK, when the congenitally cheap ‘Freddo’ chocolate bar raised in price. Such lamentations however were a product of a deep seated irony of the economic hardships in the UK at the time. The Freddo was really just utilised here as a grassroots bellwether for the economic hardships that were already affecting the vast majority of the population.

I was sitting with the boyfriend of an old colleague of mine and he was waving his new classically-aluminated iPhone over his coffee; and he was dismayed. He ran his index finger up and down the smooth body – with the indulgence of an animal that had forgotten that nature tends to provide splinters when groped in such a fashion – to highlight the abomination that had befallen this current evolution of the product; or species of product. His finger rested on the camera lens, or more accurately, he bumped his finger on the small dark plastic washer that encased the camera lens. Apparently the camera inserted into the phone was to be the highest on the market at that time, but my lunch companion was adamant that this was a pitfall that Jobs would never have stepped into.  This Cyrano de Bergerac-ian protuberance spoiled the phone.  My friend expanded by explaining that Jobs would never have abided a few milimetres to bulge from his oblong. Steve Jobs, according to this man who had never met Steve Jobs, would have held back production to fix the bump; he would have even reverted to a camera of lesser quality to maintain the integrity of the iPhones smooth and flat sexlessness. The level of emotional investment was clear – it was like hearing a friend denounce an ex-lover for attending an AC/DC concert, despite having never expressed an interest in the band during their relationship.

There is also an incestuous and powerful victory for capitalism over its subjects/customers inside this lament – it displays two internally reliant assumptions. First, the assumption that Apple under Steve Jobs through benevolence would deny their customers the best quality smartphone camera if the smooth aesthetic of the phone is lost as a result. The second assumption is the more far-reaching and initial delusions of the free market capitalist paradigm; which is that in capitalism all technological advances are incipiently introduced to the market at their first availability. Jobs under Apple is lauded by his worshippers for providing an inferior technological product in support of ensuring that our vanity is sated first.

That computers (whether in their desktop or telephone or tablet guise) were to dominate the world was, for anyone with some knowledge of the potentials of the platform, inevitable. Anyone with an eye on the transformation of the markets, unbridled by the policies of the Reagan administration, would have seen the movement of capital accelerate; and continue to gain velocity with the increased use of the microchip to handle all that information. Jobs’ achievement was to identify that what was required to expand the proliferation of the personal computer, and negate our professional relationship with them, was to remove the identity that they were machines. Prior to Jobs’ return to Apple, and the subsequent release of the first iMac, our relation to computers was in the professional world, which was broken into and dominated by Microsoft. The computer was a work-tool – all magnolia frontage and industrial. Their hard discs crackled, their OS design would throw up error notes that only engineers with prior education in the work of machines could correct. That someone would have invaded this gap in the customer’s relationship with the computer was inevitable, but Jobs had always known this. He had a keen sense of cultural instincts and understood that the general vision of the future, created by the hugely influential 60’s culture explosion of western post-industrial societies (productions of Hollywood primarily), gave a sense of unity with the machine – much like my note above about the future materials not providing splinters, glossy aluminium would not bite us; in fact sparkling silver walls would protect us even from the vacuum of space.

His achievements were in establishing a patriarchal image, a humbly dressed man, bestowing gifts that bridged the future we had implanted from our popular culture. A marvellous achievement, but there is no doubt that the nuts and bolts of his success was in taking the nuts and bolts of already established – and often government funded – technology. That he is lauded as a creator is great fallacy; he was a salesman; a product man. It was also a domain of engineers and/or marketeers of little understanding of the product (and Jobs points out in his own words). The failures early on in his career are often cited as being ‘ahead of his time’, whereas he was in fact needing an extensive government and industrial investment in infrastructure before his vision could be realised. From the establishment of the internet – ensuring that his intention to create closed system between his customers and his product – he had the playing field to provide the badge of prestige that his products needed to succeed. He pushed the industry to alter its face to its customers, and the flocking of customers to these products show he was correct. But to now celebrate him as a creative genius, whose skill is to withhold in the face of letting down our expectation of purity – this ghastly camera nipple, for example – shows how it is unhealthy to admire the salesman. A good salesman after all is skilled for identifying our weaknesses.



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