Paul Vallely: How Steve Jobs reinvented desire

Apple's founder was no latter-day Edison or Einstein. He just knew what kept men acquiring his gadgets

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It's easy to get the wrong idea about commodity fetishism. It conjures up the sense of something vaguely sexual nowadays, because of the modern meaning of fetish. Psychologists use it to describe the way some people transfer sexual messages into parts of the body or objects which are not primarily conceived as sexual objects, such as feet or shoes.

But in Karl Marx's day the fetish was primarily a religious notion. It centred on the idea of how primitive peoples transferred the idea of mystical powers from the preternatural ether to an object, such as a statue or a charm. Marx had a fairly dull idea of what a commodity was; in Das Kapital he used linen, corn and coats as his examples. Today, we have more exciting commodities, as the death of Steve Jobs has reminded us, with his unending procession of iMac, iPod, iPhone, iTunes, iPad and who knows what he has left in the iPipeline.

Think different is the Apple slogan. Ironically, there was a pretty undifferentiated consensus in the tributes being paid to him. Eulogies likened him to Edison and Einstein. He was, apparently, "the Leonardo da Vinci of our time". More tellingly, his death was compared with that of Elvis Presley or John Lennon as marking the end of a cultural era.

All this tells us more about ourselves than about the untimely-taken Mr Jobs. A commodity is anything which is bought and sold. Commodities are bearers of value, Marx tells us, because of the labour that goes into them. But fetishism attributes to them something else which does not properly belong to inanimate objects.

When industrial nations came into contact with tribal societies, something called cargo cults developed. In them, primitive people assumed that the material wealth of rich nations came through their magical practices. If only these could be copied, they reasoned, all the associated cargo would follow. So, in the Pacific after the Second World War, local tribes began building crude copies of the landing strips, aircraft and radio equipment which both American and Japanese armies used to bring in supplies. They assumed that consumer goodies would, supernaturally, follow.

In the end, what Steve Jobs produced was just more stuff. But it was sleek and sexy stuff. It swiftly became part of the cultural fabric because it was possessed of the fetishising power of seeming more than it was. The "i" seemed to stand for inherent – such were the powers projected on to it by the contemporary consumer cargo cult which made what these machines do somehow secondary to the possession of them. To be an Apple owner is to be clothed in a mystique which marks us out from lesser mortals. Apple users are select and hip, funky and futuristic, minimalist and cool. A commodity, as Marx said, is anything that satisfies a human desire or need.

The genius of Mr Jobs was that he told us what we desired and needed before we even realised it. He was the hippy high priest of consumer capitalism. Look at any Apple Adepts forum and you will see why. "Owning an iPad makes me feel sexy." "I bought it because I love the way the keys sound when I hit them." "I just woke up this morning and felt like I needed one." Steve Jobs was adept at turning desires into necessities. He has turned technology into an object of worship and a badge of identity. You are what you Tweet, or at any rate what you Tweet upon.

Capitalism, Marx argues, conceals the human relationships behind commodities. That is why there is not much mention in the Steve Jobs tributes of the dark underbelly of the iPad which is produced in factories where conditions are so unrelenting that last year 14 young workers killed themselves. Most of them jumped from the roof of the Foxconn factory in Taiwan manufacturing iPads – as well as kit for Dell and Sony. The management responded by hiring psychologists, providing punchbags for frustrated workers, giving them a 30 per cent wage rise and installing safety nets around its roofs to catch anyone who tries to leap off.

There is nothing singular about Apple in this. We consumers are as reluctant to inquire into how jeans in the high street, or chickens in the supermarket, can be sold so cheaply. But part of Steve Jobs's genius was to elevate his products above ethical or environmental considerations in the minds of consumers. "People under capitalism," as the American Marxist social commentator David Harvey has put it, "do not relate to each other directly as human beings; they relate to each other through the myriad products which they encounter in the market."

Commodities take on a life of their own, overshadowing that of the hapless factory worker who makes them. Nowhere is the cost of commodification better exemplified than in the case of the Chinese teenager who, a couple of months ago, sold one of his kidneys to buy an iPad2. But it's always easier to see wanton consumer fetishism in others than ourselves.

No one should doubt Steve Jobs's visionary skill in all this. When he died, this innovative, perfectionist iconoclast had no fewer than 313 patents to his name. Among them were point-and-click mouse technologies and touch-sensitive screen systems. His iMac computer was one of the first to be ready to use straight from the box. His iPod was not just a music player; it revolutionised retailing by finding a way to sell music after Napster file-sharing had destroyed the old business model. His iPhone defined the concept of the smartphone. His iPad made computers easy to carry anywhere.

Yet, for all that, Mr Jobs was not an inventor in the classic sense. Most of his technologies were borrowed from someone else, but refined and repackaged in a way that consumers found irresistible. And there were downsides. My iPhone is nowhere near so good as my old Nokia mobile for the basic business of making phone calls. And my iPad has turned out to be a boy's toy rather than a proper worktool, thanks to Apple's protectionist refusal to allow interface with other systems through a USB port. You can't even watch clips on the BBC news website because theiPad doesn't support Flash.

I say boy's toy because most of the iPad owners I know are men. One of the few dissenting tributes to Jobs this week came from a feminist, Rosie Rogers, who noted that when the iPad2 was released, the queues that formed outside Apple stores worldwide were overwhelmingly male.

To all these men, she wrote, the iPad was "a sexy piece of kit: slender to hold and so beautiful to look at you would catch yourself open-mouthed and salivating". It was another object of male desire. "Women are relegated to use technology as a tool to accomplish tasks," she blogged, "while men possess the understanding to use it as a plaything."

"Death is very likely to be the single best invention of life," Steve Jobs once said, "because death is life's change agent." Death an invention? No wonder they call it virtual reality.

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