From Open Letters Monthly:
In himself, Jobs believed, the tensions between technology, art, and commerce were resolved: a judgment to which Isaacson accedes. As Isaacson tells it, Jobs’ commitment to simple, self-evident design serendipitously reaped staggering corporate gains, without compromising on quality or belittling the customer. Coming of age in 1970s California and attending Reed college (then, a veritable incubator for hippie subculture), Jobs was at once computer whiz and iconoclast, attending engineering classes at Stanford in the morning and dropping acid in the afternoon.
To be fair, many of Jobs’ decisions did balk the cost-benefit analyses that underlie most corporate decision-making. His dogmatism about design, coupled with his epic obstinacy, frequently led to functional failures, marketplace duds, and combinations of both. The original Macintosh earned the nickname “beige toaster” for its habit of overheating. Jobs had refused to include a fan, resolved that its sporadic whirrings would undermine the Mac’s intended “Zen.” Jobs’ NeXT computer proved an out-and-out failure. Unbending in his demand that the machine be a perfect cube, Jobs ordered the production of costly molds that could cast its edges at exactly 90 degrees. With the iPhone 4, he again sacrificed functionality on the altar of design, indulging Ive’s injunction that an aluminum rim extend all the way around the phone’s edge, without a gap abutting the antenna. Its subsequent tendency to drop calls generated an orgy of media attention—though, fortunately for Jobs, failed to yield a commensurate drop in sales.
Still, the easy accords Isaacson draws feel too artful, and for good reason. In the course of nearly six-hundred pages, he fails to mention the elephant in the room: Apple’s horrific track record in China, by many accounts, the worst among its peers. Last January, a Beijing-based nonprofit ranked Apple twenty-ninth out of twenty-nine global tech companies in terms of “responsiveness and transparency to health and environmental concerns in China.” A recent New York Times article condensed Apple’s string of abuses abroad: laborers work extreme overtime in sweatshop conditions, standing until their legs swell, and, in some cases, living eight to a room. In 2009, forced to clean iPhone screens with a noxious chemical, 137 workers in eastern China suffered nerve damage. Last year, shoddy ventilation led to explosions at two Apple factories, killing four and maiming 77. At least nineteen employees at Apple’s flagship factory in Chengdu have committed suicide in the past two years. The manufacturer, Foxconn, now mandates that all workers sign pledges declaring not to kill themselves and, in the event that they do, relinquishing their families’ right to sue for damages. To maintain the fiction that Apple products are “friendly” requires a willing ignorance of their provenance.
Jobs’ design successes were legion. The man, however, was no Walter Gropius, transposed into our contemporary era. Rather than inventing outright, Jobs capitalized on the innovations of others, manufacturing not only products, but desire and obsolescence.