Somewhere along the line you might have seen Apple's "1984" advert, in which files of shaven-headed, blank-eyed, zombie proles are trudging into a cavernous chamber while a giant head on a vast screen thunders the sort of set-piece totalitarian speech calculated to upset the George Orwell estate.
Suddenly, in runs a lithe, beautiful blonde woman dressed as an athlete. She’s carrying an unfeasibly large sledgehammer and has four black-helmeted pig-cop guards on her tail. Approaching the screen, she swivels, spins, and hurls the hammer at the giant head. Everything explodes in a flash of blue light: freedom.
Up comes the message: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984’”. They only forgot to add the subtext: or else.
Here, though, was what Steve Jobs did best. He wasn’t just offering a home computer, he was offering freedom from the corporate overlord (who might just have been IBM, then Microsoft). With a Mac, you didn’t have to be like the rest. Just by buying one, you were striking a blow. To make this suggestion at the start of the year 1984 was, of course, a masterstroke.
People who care say the one-minute ad remains “a classic”. They forget a couple of things. One is that the Ridley Scott-directed piece was first aired during Superbowl XVIII – not generally the sort of moment at which Americans are ripe for revolutionary notions. After Christmas, it’s the moment when they are ripe for the attentions of big corporations who want to sell them stuff.
And secondly, though Jobs may have been helping the individual to strike a blow against the faceless capitalist combine, Mac was never a mis-spelling of Mao. Its founder, who died last week, left behind a company that now ranks, by market capitalisation, as the largest in the world. So much for the little guy.
Not that the little guy minds. Jobs did his job brilliantly. Around the world, tens of millions of people have bought the dream. They don’t just like Apple’s products, they love them. They are not just loyal. They are, some of them, fanatical, pressing their noses to the doors of the company’s stores as each new product arrives. They won’t hear a word against Apple.
Why not? The company Jobs left behind makes some very pretty things, and makes most of them very well. Yet as heads of state and government last week paid tribute to a man they seemed to regard as a peer, and as thousands left floral tributes outside Apple shops, you couldn’t help but wonder about why the marketing of some electronic kit exercised such a fascination.
Much of the emerging legend can be challenged – the idea that an Apple product must be flawless because it looks good has come apart once or twice, like some of the earlier iPods, which had the nasty habit of exploding.
Is it already overlooked – while Jobs is compared, preposterously, with Einstein and Edison – that Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player, the touchscreen, the mobile phone? Jobs was a genius in his field, but it was as a man who made things happen. As is well recorded, he was conspicuously ruthless in the role. Rupert Murdoch probably got it right when he hailed “the greatest CEO of his generation”.
Apple’s lost leader did not give all those “iconic” devices their look, either. He may have understood the alchemy of desire, and the formula for turning desire into dollars. But the credit for realising the PowerBook, MacBook, iPhone, iPad and the rest went, and still goes, to the British-born industrial designer, Jonathan Ive.
But Jobs pulled it all together; he had “vision”. After being ousted from Apple in 1985 he returned in 1997 and helped the firm’s revival by establishing a still-unbroken rule: whatever the gadget, the Apple version always costs more, even when its superiority in terms of performance isn’t always apparent. No-one desires a cheap knock-off, as Jobs well understood.
But he did more than understand. He cultivated desire. It’s possible to say, in fact, that he created desire where none before existed. In the case of Apple’s electronic stuff he also associated desire with status, liberation, with being cool.
But it is impossible to overlook the fact that liberation Apple-style came – and still comes – with strings attached. Jobs tied his customers to the company whenever he could. An app that Apple does not pre-approve? Impossible. A book, music, software that does not meet with Apple’s sanction? It won’t happen. The contrast with the “1984” ad couldn’t be more telling.
Jobs was a devoted Buddhist who simultaneously sold the idea that there is salvation in things, or at least in software, and that anything is possible if the software bears the Apple logo. He made the routine work of capitalist innovation and marketing seem like creativity – but you have to wonder whose face would be up on the giant screen now if the pretty athlete from “1984” ran into the room with her sledgehammer.
Jobs gave people what they wanted, time and again. Most of the time, he caused them to want it. So did Steve Jobs change the world, or recognise it for what it is?