Blog Post

The Ecstasy and Agony of Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

Steve Jobs has died.  Long live Steve Jobs.  


That's the phrase used after the death of kings and, in the age of personalized computing, Steve Jobs was king.  


Jobs made the geeky PC personal.   Long before I had one, I knew a friend, an academic radical and Marxist, who would fall asleep at night cuddling his beautiful white Mac and then would wake up with it by his pillow.   His wife (also an academic radical and Marxist) found this hilarious and touching.   She had one too. 


It was hearing this story that made me convert to a Mac.   I admit I was a hold out.  I found them too expensive, too heavy, and too lock-box, too unwilling to play with others (other devices, operating systems, software, tools).   But then I wandered into an Apple store and it was my modernist dream realized there, so clean and clear and beautiful.   And then, well, there was the iPod experiment at Duke that I was involved in and I think I let mine sit there for six months with only a few Bob Marley songs on it, and then I began hearing what Duke students were dreaming up for this little music listening device, and I held it one day, so much in the palm of my hand, all that and beauty too, that amazing surface that felt like nothing except itself.  Dispositionally, I am an open source kinda gal.  So I was opposed not just to the shut-down nature of Apple products but their canny, narcissistic isolationaist business model that really only works if other devices work out and connect with them. 


I could pontificate at length about not liking Macs.  And then I saw what students were doing, all the ways they used this one tiny device to connect, to make a world, to communicate, to interact, and even to do good, to make connections across and between communities, using one tiny device to connect activists and organizers in communities that could not begin to afford each person to have a device or their own but, in sharing, had access to a digital world from which, by sheer economics, they would have been excluded, even as, in the industrial age, the poor were excluded.  Rescue workers connecting Durham and Haiti, educational programs for impoverished low-caste minority girls in the fields outside Bangalore, Black South African school kids learning a new world beyond the poverty and racism of the one they lived in daily through linked systems of trade and learning (together) via mobile devices.  Peer-to-peer learning of ideas and skills and, well, not too get too sanguine, dreams that cost nothing but an internet connection, sometimes via a public library.  So often, the tiny iPod was a conduit, over and over again, between producers and consumers and switching back and forth in ways no one could have anticipated.  

On the level of code, it may have been lock-box.  On the level of connection, humanity, interaction, it was a link between all kinds of worlds at once, including those who might have otherwise been cut off, divided.  All that in the palm of the hand. Genius.  

In researching Now You See It, I looked for communities divided by the digital.   As with all dispairites, growing and growing as they are, I found many digital ones.  But I also kept finding that, among the poorest of the poor, there were ways to connect to the connectors.    


Playwright Mike Daisey has a show currently running off Broadway and now fast-tracked to Broadway in the wake of Steve Jobs' passing that is called 'The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.'   I've only read reviews of this show but  it speaks to an issue that concerns me deeply, how much our stunningly beautiful digital products are created upon the terrible, abusive, sweatshop labor conditions of others, especially in China.   The single most knowledgeable person I know on this subject, a brilliant cultural anthropologist and activist, wrote such an amazing tribute to Steve Jobs on his Facebook page last night, marking how hard he and other activists and scholars are working to try to get "Apple to take a stand on the health, labor, and environmental record of its outsourced companies" in China.  Apple refuses to address these issues--and yet, this same scholar, expresses the same admiration I feel for Steve Jobs and his imagination, his creation of such beautiful, wonderful human interfaces with technology.     And of course, as much as we may excoriate Apple and the US for exploitation, there is the looming power of China, building its entrance as a first-world nation upon the backs of its outsourced populace whose tragic standard of living may (that is the question) be improving because of what, to our values, is pure and catastrophic exploitation.    That is the agony and ecstasy of Steve Jobs in Mike Daisey's one-man performance drama.   


It is the agony and ecstasy of the complex, interconnected world we live in, where a tiny device connects disparate economic fates, including our own.    You could not avoid the braided Twitter streams last night, the great outrushing of deep and geniuine sorrow for the passing of a genius and the great outrushing of outrage for police actions against nonviolent Occupy Wall Street protestors nationwide who, among other things, were standing up for the jobless (pun partially intended) in the US and beyond.  


I'm not sure it is possible to resolve the agony and the ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which is to say the agony and the ecstasy of the interconnected world we live in together and interdependently, in complicated ways that defy the elegant simplicity that defines Apple and defined Steve Jobs.


Many are quoting Steve Jobs today.    The Stanford Commencement speech is unforgettable and inspiring:  "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything - all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press).  NOTE:  The views expressed in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of any institution or organization.  For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.   To find out Cathy Davidson's book tour schedule, visit

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I rarely comment on posts, especially when what I have to say is likely to be a minority opinion.  But I have to say that I was taken aback by your lionizing of Steve Jobs in this posting for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, I was moved by a recent blog post by Steven Thrasher that pointed out the more precise contradiction of the lionizing of Jobs that takes place through the same channels, and by some of the same people who are supporting the OWS protests.  Jobs was part of that 1% wasn't he? 

But more disturbing is the contradiction between the outpouring of affection for Jobs and the under-discussed  issue of the suicides and suicide attempts at Foxconn factories in China where many Apple products are manufactured.

As Thrasher notes:

"But left out from Jobs' legacy for the most part was a dark skeleton Kennedy brought up: the Foxconn suicides. Jobs did publicly address (albeit in a somewhat ham-fisted fashion) the spate of suicides by employees of Foxconn, the company where the iPhone and iPad are actually manufactured in China, before he stepped down as CEO of Apple this summer. Foxconn, one of the largest makers of electronics in the world, makes products for Apple and many other computer companies. Some 18 employees attempted to kill themselves and 14 were successful in 2010.

And while Jobs (who pointed out that the Foxconn suicide rate was "below the China average") will be eulogized at length today for his undeniable advancements to technology and American enterprise, his death at age 56 will be seen as tragic. But the people who committed suicide at the plants which made his products -- themselves ages 18 to 25 -- are all unknown by name, their deaths simply accepted as an unfortunate but acceptable by product of industrial progress."

Of course contradictions get papered over in the face a luminary's death: that is the human way, to remember the dead for the best of what they offered the world, in the small ways and (in Job's case) the momentous ways.

My second point concerns Jobs as a particular type of technology-industry leader.  By many accounts, he was not a pleasant guy to work for; he was harsh and insensitive in gendered ways that very few women in his industry could have ever gotten away with.  His difficult interpersonal behavior was tolerated and indeed forgiven because of the mantle of "genius" that was so often bestowed upon him.  But of course, his genius was actually socially produced, early on in deep collaboration with Steve Wozniak, and later with Jonathan Ive, the key industrial design director at Apple. 

I believe that a thorough analysis of the cultural impact of Apple products--produced according to Job's vision--would have to include the consideration of many more factors than simply his genius, such as the expansive demographic of creative producers, the rise of design as a consumer commodity, the increase of 24/7 labor practices, new logics of virtual mobility made ideologically palatable due to increasing restrictions on physical and economic mobility.  I'm not sure that I would argue that he wasn't a genius.  I guess I would just like to suggest a more nuanced treatment of any one person's value before they get coronated as the "king" of an industry.

In full disclosure:  I'm an avid and long-time Apple product user.  I just finished an essay called "I-Phone, I-Learn" extolling the virtues of the I-Phone as the materialization of my most perfect cyborg mother.  It mirrors back to me exactly the world I want to see.  But I also raise issues--as is my wont--about the ideological impact of virtual mobility promised by these perfect devices.  I-Pods, I-Phones, I-Pads are significant elements of our digital landscape, and they are implicated in important transformations in how we live our lives (they "naturalized" the notion of nautural user interface, for example), but their impact, I would argue, is not due to any one man's singular genius. Jobs iterated on ideas originally developed by others, he attracted highly talented collaborators who could tolerate his particular interpersonal style, and he persevered in the face of significant set-backs to build not one but two successful corporate enterprises.  Focusing on the concrete lessons of his enterprising efforts makes me more comfortable than lionizing him with titles such as "king" or "genius."

But that's just me.


This is terrific, Anne.  Thanks for posting.  I haven't yet seen the play to which my post aludes, "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," but from the reviews and descriptions I read it exactly plays on what you and I both talk about, the irony of these beautiful smooth machines and the rough, barbaric treatment of Chinese workers who make the machines in 19th century sweatshop conditions.  My friend Ralph Litzinger is both a scholar of China working to champion worker righs at the Apple plants in China--and a lover of Apple products and also writes profoundly about this.   


What I especially love about your post is deconstructing the "genius" mystique, to emphasize what it means to collaborate together.    There clearly is a "genius" in leadership too but it's fascinating how quickly the press elides design and imaginative and technological genius with business acumen and leadership.   We should do a panel on this sometime!   Such a great area.   Thanks again, so much depth and complexity here!