Why I'll take Bill Gates over Steve Jobs every time
We live in a media world simultaneously obsessed with technology and personality, and so it was hardly surprising that when Steve Jobs succumbed to cancer, the coverage of his life would focus, alternately, on his incredible accomplishments in the former category together with his apparent shortcomings in the latter. Yes, Jobs was a genius and also an SOB. This is hardly unusual when it comes to geniuses. In Jobs's case, his boorish behavior makes for an interesting biography, courtesy of Walter Isaacson, but it's not really an issue for the rest of us.
Far more significant are the societal roles Jobs played. And here, despite the myriad ways his companies improved our lives, Jobs was a hero only in the Ayn Randian sense. A living, breathing character out of Atlas Shrugged, he treated the people who actually manufacture Apple products like serfs and hoarded his $8.3 billion fortune to no apparent purpose.
Apple is a wonderful company for its customers and investors. So, too, Pixar. (NeXT, not so much…) But Apple is also an engine of misery for its subcontracted Chinese workers. That this story went largely unreported during Jobs’s life is a testament to how enthralled our media are by the myth of the man’s talismanic qualities, and how easily manipulated most reporters are by wealthy, successful entrepreneurs. But it is also a testament to how little the lives of laborers appear to count anymore. It fell to the monologist Mike Daisey, who created and stars in the brilliant one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, now at the Public Theater in New York City, to force this issue into public consciousness. Daisey traveled to the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, which employs 420,000 people to manufacture products for Apple and other electronics and computer companies, to talk with the workers (unlike the Wired magazine reporter who, Daisey scathingly notes, penned a 3,300-word cover story on the plant without speaking to a single worker). Daisey’s mission was risky—a photographer was recently beaten up by the company’s guards—but he was determined, having heard about abuses at Foxconn. There, thirty-four-hour shifts, beatings, child labor, an epidemic of suicides and a general prison-camp atmosphere prevailed, and even yawning could get your (meager) pay docked. He met one worker whose hand had been “permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads.” When Daisey showed the man his iPad, it was the first time he had ever seen one turned on. He thought it was “magic.”
Faced with a public relations problem relating to the suicides, the company installed wire mesh on the factory windows to stop workers from jumping out to kill themselves. According to a subsequent London Daily Mail exposé, the workers have also been forced to sign a legally binding document promising that they and their dependents will not sue the company as the result of “any unexpected death or injury, including suicide or self torture.”
Daisey is right when he insists that Steve Jobs was the one man in the world uniquely positioned to change this. Apple’s profit margins are immense. The stock could have continued to soar even if the pay and conditions of these workers’ lives were built into the cost of an iPhone or an iPad. People would have kept buying the products, and other companies would have been forced to follow suit. But Jobs didn’t care. He even instructed Obama that the United States had to behave more like China in the manner in which it encouraged corporations to act free of regulations or concern for their employees and their environment.
A second issue raised by Jobs’s life and death is all that money he accumulated. When New York Times “DealBook” editor Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote a column before Jobs died, wondering why he seemed so stingy with his fortune—noting also that he did away with all the company’s charity programs (which were restored after his departure in August)—Sorkin addressed the topic so gingerly, I half thought he feared Jobs would send a thunderbolt from the sky to disable his typing fingers (or possibly curl his arm into a claw). “None of this is meant to judge Mr. Jobs. I have long been a huge admirer of Mr. Jobs and consider him the da Vinci of our time,” blah, blah, blah. Even so, right-wing bloggers and pundits evinced outrage that Sorkin even raised the issue. But come now: $8.3 billion? And add to this that Apple is apparently sitting on an estimated $76 billion in cash and other investments allegedly residing in a company called Braeburn Capital in Reno, Nevada—a corporation, according to BusinessWeek, that Apple created for “the purpose of managing its cash and short-term investments in a tax-advantageous manner” in a state that has no corporate or capital-gains taxes. (Why, after all, should Apple’s millionaires and billionaires contribute to the local and statewide public services in Cupertino, California, that make those fortunes possible?)
How ironic that the media love to celebrate this alleged icon of ’60s idealism at the expense of poor, square Bill Gates, who is devoting the better part of his fortune to improving the lives of millions of the world’s poorest people. (“Bill is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology,” Jobs told Isaacson. In the past, he had suggested that Gates “would be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger.”)
True, I am deeply devoted to the 27,000 songs I can take anywhere on my iPod Classic as well as the exquisitely engineered MacBook Air on which I typed this column. But as a parent and a citizen, I’ll take a Bill Gates (or Warren Buffett) over Steve Jobs every time. If we must have billionaires, better they should ignore Jobs’s example and instead embrace the morality and wisdom of the great industrialist/philanthropist Andrew Carnegie: “The man who dies…rich dies disgraced.”Bio: Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.