Why, Really, Do We Love Steve Jobs?

In the spirit of understanding “social and professional imaginaries,” here’s a link to a short piece I did on In These Times, “Why, Really, Do We Love Steve Jobs?” The punchline is that neither Benjamin Franklin nor Thomas Edison (two other mythic capitalist figures) would have recommended dropping out of college, taking LSD, and backpacking through India as good career preparation. But the American romantic Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Whoso would be a man must be a noncomformist”) very well might have approved: the Jobs myth is an Emersonian one about “trusting thyself” instead of the common wisdom or calculating rationality and — this is why it’s such a beloved version of the tale — triumphing by the dominant society’s own rules.

Franklin and Edison were big on hard work and science; the good old Protestant Ethic. “Inspiration” got only 1%. It was Emerson and friends (e.g., Thoreau) who introduced the fascination with promethean creativity to American culture. Now almost every digital business needs to crow about how innovative it is, even though the richest ones (e.g., Microsoft) are more often imitative than innovative.

Is the focus on innovation/creativity in business just an ideological reflex, a sop to the often deadening rat race? Or does it mark a more profound institutional shift? And does the term “cultural production” that we have been using as a group enact or supersede the Emersonian understanding of creativity/innovation?