Tuesday, 11 October 2011




On the home page of the New York Times on Thursday, October 6, 2011, two images, staggered: One, a crowd; the colors are vibrant and varied. There are people, dozens, maybe hundreds, spilling out of the frame and into the world beyond the photo. Sitting, standing, yelling and looking up. Signs held up high read "OCCUPY-RESIST," read "REVOLT."

Next to it, down the page a bit, is a man against a black background. He's pale and staring into a screen. He's seated. Alone. This man could be nowhere but on a stage.

This man, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, has just died, and with his death a worldview is dying with him.

The worldview in the other photo, as enacted by Occupy Wall Street, has just been born.

The day before, one could feel the mass media about to finally present Occupy Wall Street - the movement that is largest in New York, but growing into other cities, echoing Middle East protests, and targeting corporate greed and demanding corporate accountability. Leftist journalist Amy Goodman had showed up on the livestream; documentarian Michael Moore was tweeting away, unions had joined. Surely, no one could ignore the movement.

Then Steve Jobs died, and an opening was made for the media to crawl out of or into. A "visionary," as he is being called by seemingly every media outlet everywhere, had passed. Pancreatic cancer - we saw it coming, but as always with death, it still seemed to arrive from nowhere.

My Twitter feed, which had been very slowly filling with Occupy Wall Street-related news, erupted with "RIP Steve Jobs" messages which ranged from the heartfelt ("Your technology has made my life possible") to the light-hearted but warm ("iSad"). Many recounted their first Apple purchases.


I started earlier than most: My mother bought my family an Apple IIc in the 1980s. With it, I began to write a novel when I was seven years old. The computer, with its clumsy floppy disks and off-white entire-desk-occupying monitor fused with my creative life. I would have never written so much as a child without the computer, and writing so much is what kept the thread going -- from writing then to writing now. And the thread is here at this moment; I'm writing this on a Mac.

But despite this early involvement with Jobs's early, clumsy children, I wasn't exactly moved by his death. He was and Apple is, unlike prime competitor Bill Gates, notorious for not making charitable donations (at least publicly -- Jobs's apologists, including Andrew Ross Sorkin and Forbes magazine, say he may be giving secretly). His company is reported to use sweatshop labor, and last year, materials used for Apple products were traced back to murderous African militia groups. He was as anti-pornography as someone could be while not being a radical fundamentalist. His devices are, according to many public health advocates, spreading cancer. Without even approaching the enormous amount of resource depletion and pollution creation computers are responsible for (and this should not be ignored, should be examined more deeply and more often), Jobs and his work are problematic and cannot hope to present moral value in and of themselves.

On top of that, there was and is, what from any angle looks like a revolution happening, and the mainstream media suddenly shut it out.

The Twitter feeds kept coming in from sources (like @OccupyWallSt) directly related to the protests; many stating police were corralling protestors to arrest them and worse. Some protestors were being beaten and pepper-sprayed for doing little more than holding those colorful signs and bearing witness to economic crimes against humanity.

While this was happening, people began to march to Apple Stores, not to occupy them, but to grieve, with their glowing devices in hand; mock candles that costs hundreds of dollars. They placed notes. Some cried. Many took photos of each other.


Commenting on any of this in public was tricky business, I learned. When I said on Twitter and in a cafe I was worried that people were projecting emotion onto their gadgets, I got a cold "fuck you" and called an asshole more than once. "He changed the world!" Was the most common response, as if change were value-laden, the measure by which a person's life is gaged. As if we all don't change the world.

When I said, "let's not forget Occupy Wall St while we mourn," people scolded me. Didn't I know, they wondered, that the whole movement couldn't be happening without Steve Jobs's innovations? I mused back: maybe these protests wouldn't be necessary without the corporate and technological running amok. Not much of a response there, only that I was "dismissing people's sense of loss."

I was reminded of Andrew Ross Sorkin's particularly stupid article on Occupy Wall Street just a few days earlier (The New York Times, October 3, 2011). He thinks he's got some sort of stick-it-to-them line for the protestors: a withered and sixth-grade criticism. He asks one (out of tens of thousands) how they got to the protest. When the response is by plane, he questions more "deeply" that planes are part of corporate culture no? "Doesn't Virgin America represent the corporations you are trying to fight?" he asks. In other words: don't these fools know they're hypocrites? Sorkin's question is profound, though by no credit of his own. He doesn't know it's profound, because he asks with the intent of dismissing the group. The call of hypocrisy is often a child's game, because it refuses to recognize complexity.

The real weight of this question in light of Jobs's death is this -- where do these gadgets, corporate-built but now woven into the fabric of our being, fit into our lives? It's not clear that they're good -- good for whom? Certainly not Apple's sweatshop workers, nor for the millions that can't afford Apple products. Nor are they good for many of those who can afford them, but brandish them like badges of honor -- status symbols in a strange war for whose iPhone is the whitest. Add, again, the problems of resources and social implications of these devices and I'm not so sure they're good for us or that the way in which Jobs "changed the world" was for the better.

Then again, bad for whom? Occupy Wall Street and the movements they engendered or grew from them employ technological advances like no movement before.

Livestreams, Twitter, phones with cameras, phones as walkie-talkies, hacking systems, broadcasting to the world, emailing demands. So, like the first apple, to bite at technology renders unto us a gift that is by no means free.

Of course, none of this means that Steve Jobs was a good person. The Nobel Prize was named after the inventor of dynamite, which was subsequently responsible for death after death. The Rhodes scholars take their name from a racist diamond mogul. Works of peace or beauty often come from violent and strange places.


Sorkin's other question was "What's the message?" He writes, "...at least to me, the message was clear," but then uses the rest of the article to point out just how messy and unclear he thinks the message is. This is as ubiquitous a media sentiment about Occupy Wall Street as "visionary" is about Jobs. But aside from the fact that many of the participants have stated clearly what they want, their detractors miss the point: decentralization is its greatest strength and most profound feature. And this decentralization was made possible historically and practically by technology.

Whereas once there were figureheads and men and women with megaphones fighting the power, now there are waves. The protestors don't seek a leader, but consider themselves collectively as a leader of a new way of thinking. The movement is the leader, in service to its subjects.

This is possible only because our sense of self is changing; growing more accustomed to connectivity through the Internet and globalization, we have begun to define ourselves by our interactions with others, not merely our own pursuits. Self is composed of a vast matrix of others instead of being segregated into Ones.

Of course this has its consequences too -- as many media theorists have pointed out; we can become more isolated by thinking the rest of the world is in the computer rather than real. But Occupy Wall Street represents this new sense of self at its most human.

Connecting online before and during the protests, with each other as well as the world, Occupy Wall Street occupies real space, and finds solidarity in virtual space with those who can't be there.

And this connectedness has given us a vast sense of equality that the protestors want borne out on a global, economic, and political level. A way to understand this is exhibited by the Ever-Shrinking Celebrity. No longer the untouchable black and white movie divas and leading men, celebrities are instead our neighbors, sitting in their living rooms. We're connected to them and participating in our own exhibition on YouTube and Facebook and Tumblr. We're curators of the fascinating museums of our superstar lives; media- and business-selected celebrities are less interesting to us. Even genuine mainstream celebrities like Lady Gaga show a different sense of self; in touch with her fans, she is her fan base, she tells us. Their actions are her blood. Other celebrities are less direct but nonetheless exhibit diminishing old-school fame. They talk to "the other 99%" on Twitter. They're no longer mobbed for autographs at the airport but instead they pose -- without pay -- for quick cellphone photos. We're them. They're us.

If our cherished celebrities cannot withstand the erosion of collectivity, how could our leaders -- financial and political -- hope to be spared? We're interconnected enough to know what others need. We don't need to be "represented" anymore, because we can actually speak to one another.

Famous, brilliant, "visionary" Steve Jobs, alone in the black with his gadget, isn't quite the hero he would have been even ten years ago. Vitriolic responses to critics of his corporate miserliness can be seen as symptoms of clinging to an old worldview. Since we're now understanding ourselves as connected, so will we connect moral bankruptcy with technological innovation. The latter will not excuse the former.

The world is fleshing out a new ethic and moral structure as the sense of self changes. Until it resolves (and perhaps it never will; perhaps it will be in this tension for a long, long time), we will stand in paradoxes. This isn't hypocrisy, it's a moment of learning, of process. But one of the messages of this moment has already emerged:

If you were famous, you will no longer be famous. If you were uncharitable but innovative, we'll take the computers and turn them into charitable devices. If you were irresponsible, you're one of us, and we demand responsibility of ourselves. No more figureheads. No more totalizing centralization. No more celebrities, no more superpowers, no more Wall Street or despots. No more crimes from iron-fisted, power-wielding authorities because there will no longer be any authorities. The center is everywhere, and we occupy it.

Image by David Shankbone, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

No comments: