Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Great Man Theory

All the Steve Jobs love is starting to get on my nerves. No wish to piss on the man or his memory or his very real achievements, but I feel a reaction building, so will vent here.

First, here's the Onion capturing things perfectly as usual.

Second: boy, do Americans love them some CEO, especially an arrogant one. For a bunch of freedom-loving rebels there is certainly a strong streak of servility in the national character.

Third, I can always rely on Mencius Moldbug to articulate have exactly values that are diametrically opposed to my own. Here he's just channelling his hero Carlyle and his Great Man Theory of history. "There is no act more moral between men than that of rule and obedience." Well, OK then.

Fourth, here's a piece I wrote a little while ago on whether Jobs or all the thousands of creative people who worked for him and on the technologies he appropriated deserve credit. Also see this proposal for the tomb of the unknown engineer.

Jobs was a master packager and salesman, an innovator rather than an inventor. He took ideas that were largely developed by other people, added some design vision and marketing zing and produced cool. That's not nothing, but it's not exactly world-transformative either. Without him, technology would probably have developed along almost exactly the same lines, although perhaps more slowly, and with less impact on lifestyle trends.

But I use and appreciate Apple products, wouldn't be caught dead with Microsoft. I prefer Linux as the platform of actual netocratic democracy rather than top-down authoritarian tastemakers, but don't have the commitment to be an open source ideologue. So Steve Jobs has improved my life.

Whether history was primarily driven by singular individuals or was a product of vast impersonal forces was a big question in the 19th century.  When I find myself oscillating between two sides of a debate that has gone on for that long, I like to aim for something beyond the dialectical poles. Let's just say that technology is the creation of radically distributed networks of creativity, more so than any other human thing. Your iPhone contains the contributions of hundreds of thousands of people, from the guy who sweated over the exact shape of the bezel, to the Chinese workers who assembled it, the generations of engineers who brought semiconductor technology up to the level where it could be incorporated, and so many others. 

But we aren't very good at thinking about those kinds of networks, so it's much more convenient, perhaps necessary, to have a single human face to put on it all. Jobs was that face, and he was not at all shy about taking on that role.
In historical events great men—so-called—are but labels serving to give a name to the event, and like labels they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity. -- Tolstoy, War and Peace


exuberance said...

I too have been thinking about this. It would appear that we have a deep seated preference for condensing the story, the model, down to something concrete and identifiable; and in many many cases that becomes an individual. Sort of the way that the whole debacle that was the Depression and then the World War Two becomes Hitler.

Of course a business strives to take ownership of a large swath of this or that transformative/displacing transition. Moore's law and his friends have been boiling frogs in quickly and in quantity; and different firms have taken ownership over different chunks of that. The post war shift into suburbia would be another example.

There is something here too about how our story templates require a hero and something about the Gods; and we do get confused. And we do love a bit of entertainment violence in the character's persona.

mtraven said...

The distinction between an agent-based view of the world and a more dynamical-system-based view was a big chunk of my dissertation work, where I was trying to apply it to the design of programming languages and environments.

But I didn't realize until yesterday that the same dichotomy appears in Carlyle and Tolstoy. Just shows that 15 years later I'm still not finished with it.