Steve Jobs has been credited with changing the way we live, the way we view technology, the way we listen to music, the way we communicate, the way we think about art, design and invention, and much, much more. But I think the biggest change he has made is to the way both its critics and cheerleaders think about capitalism.

Take the old adage that the consumer is king. In some ways, this is as true for Apple as it is for anyone else. It stands or falls on the basis of whether people will buy its stuff. But Jobs's success was built firmly on the idea that in another sense, you should not give consumers what they want because they don't know what they want. No one thought they wanted the first desktop Mac, iPod, iPhone or iPad before they existed. Jobs repeatedly created things that people came to want more than anything else only by not trying to give them what they already wanted.

This challenges the idea that consumer culture inevitably means pandering to the conventional, to the lowest common denominator. Markets are not necessarily conservative: truly great innovations can become popular. Jobs has also provided the clearest evidence yet that excellence comes at a cost. Against both the optimistic open-source movement that thinks all good things can be made collaboratively for free, and the race-to-the-bottom chains that believe the answer is always to be the cheapest, Jobs showed that you could, and must, charge a premium price for a premium product.

Far from condemning his company to a niche, by following this principle, Apple actually became, briefly, the biggest company in the world. The lesson has still to be taken on board elsewhere. In news and broadcasting, for example, we are all learning that you can't sustain quality by giving things away.

It's not just about cost, however. Jobs was unpopular for the way in which he tightly controlled Apple's copyrights, refused to license to third parties and tied his devices to his own suppliers of content. This was seen as undemocratic, demagogic even. But whether or not he was always right, his success shows that there is something to the idea that true excellence often requires tight control. It's the principle that guides the best restaurant kitchens, the best production lines and even many of the best films, plays or dance productions. Jobs should have killed the idea that everything works better if it's open, collaborative and non-judgmental.

Jobs also made multinational brands respectable. Many people who moan about the "designer label" culture and think that all multinational companies are evil love their Macs and iStuff to the point of being evangelical bores about them. They might claim this isn't brand loyalty, it's just enthusiasm for great gadgets. But this is really only to make clear that the genuinely good brands have products of substance behind them. The brands we should despise are those that could be pasted to pretty much any product without anyone noticing. The ones we admire are those whose name we have learned tell us something reliable about what they produce.

But perhaps the most important way in which Jobs has made us rethink capitalism is shown by the very fact that we're talking about how he has changed anything at all. Just as some have claimed that the "big man" idea of history is as old-fashioned as its gender-specific name suggests, so people in business have been demoted in importance beneath impersonal "market forces". On this view, the dynamic efficiency of the free market means that every last bit of potential for increased efficiency and profit will be squeezed, not by design, but by the invisible hand of every business doing what is best for itself. So had Jobs not given us the iPad, someone else would have. Maybe not exactly the same, maybe not at just that time, but pretty much the same kind of product, and sooner rather than later.

You might think that if business truly believed this, it would have no reason to pay its own men and women quite so much for their all-too-dispensable contributions. In fact, all the more reason to pay them: given that it is inevitable that gaps in the market will be filled, you want to make sure it's your business that fills them.

No, the real flaw with this way of thinking assumes that the market will both throw up all the variety of products and businesses imaginable and, by a kind of natural selection, the best and most profitable will survive and thrive. But the evolutionary analogy doesn't hold. Nature needs aeons of time for random mutation to produce and test every possibility. Thankfully, human innovation can work quicker, because it's not random at all. And it's because the market doesn't automatically generate all the good ideas that individuals really can change the game. Some ideas are so crazy no one ever has them; some so apparently crazy everyone ignores them and only the genius can see they're made of gold.

Yes, without Steve Jobs we probably would still have got MP3 players, smartphones, laptops that look cool and little tablet computers. But we can't say with confidence when we would have got them, how good they would have been and how dominant they would have become. We had cheap portable netbooks and tablet devices before the iPad came out, for example. But they had limited appeal, limited functionality and were languishing as niche products. What Jobs and his team did was to come up with a new type of device that really took off. And when it did, it was a game-changer.

So Jobs is actually exhibit A in any case against the idea that the market is maximally efficient and can be left to take care of things by itself. A slap in the face to free-market fundamentalists, but hardly comfort to anti-capitalists either. Jobs doesn't show that capitalism is a flawed system, only that it is not perfectly self-regulating.

For all these reasons, capitalism looks different because of what Jobs's company achieved. His company challenges both lazy market orthodoxies and idealistic anti-capitalist critiques. In general terms it is true that all these challenges have found voice and expression in our culture elsewhere. But with Jobs they were given a clearer, louder expression, backed up by the incontrovertible evidence his life and company produced. The world may well have been different without Jobs: not so far forward as we are, less beautiful, more in tune with the lowest common denominator. If we found ourselves in that world right now, of course, we would recognise it. But we might not love it quite so much.

Julian Baggini - The Guardian


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