Sunday 16 October 2011

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections, Music and Dance

When news first reached me of the death of Apple's trail-blazing wizard, Steven Jobs, a few days ago, I had just completed the first two-hundred pages of Naomi Klein's brilliant and eye-opening book "The Shock Doctrine". Somehow Steven's image as a quasi-messianic entrepeneur blended with the same God-like appeal that Milton Friedman, chief architect of the "laissez-faire" free-market approach, had for decades. I'm not implying they're directly linked. Jobs and Friedman were as similar to each other as a fish and a football are. One was an economist with a strong dislike for central government, the other one was a creative visionary and aesthete. But there were certain parallels between them in that they were both products of the same socioeconomic system which enabled them to pursue analogous goals, albeit in different ways.

For instance, my first brush with one Job's creations, the Apple Mac, came fortuitously eight years ago when I began to work in the arts. There were just a couple of PCs in the office and they were in constant use. That meant that the only machine available was a Mac that belonged to the Chief Executive.

As an uninitiated to one of Jobs' babies I found the computer hard to operate and it frustrated me no end, if truth be told. However, even I had to admit that the Mac's soft, smooth, curved, white box design was a wonder at which to marvel. Besides, since I was neither a visual artist, nor a musician, the machine was not primarily made for me. The myriad menus that allowed composers to mix and re-mix their pieces and photographers to muck around with images were some of the reasons why people parted with their hard-earned cash for this piece of sophisticated machinery.

The other reasons had to do with Jobs' vision. One where the consumer was supposed to reign unchallenged. Also, it was a world where the "i" in his products (iPod, iPhone, iPad), in my view, symbolised the individual, the "I can do" attitude, a sentiment that was vindicated by the many hundreds who always flocked to the unveiling of a new Apple product. Never mind the fact that Steve's company was not what you could consider as niche; having an iPod set you apart from the herd.

In that sense, Friedman's focus on the individual was not a lot different, even if his modus operandi was. According to Naomi Klein, Milton's political and economic trademark was "privatization, government deregulation and deep cuts to social spending". In order to achieve these goals he prescribed the same universal medicine to attentive audiences the world over: shock therapy.

The effects of his ideas are everywhere to see, from Chile to Iraq. Countries with massive debts, people living below the poverty line and corrupt governments. Ultimately the clearest example of Friedman's philosophy was the role of the individual in society. And by individual, read corporations. Unlike Steve Jobs, though, who tapped into a person's individuality, Milton plumped for a more rapacious individualism.

Individuality vs individualism. The former is innate, the latter is nurtured. Capitalism at its best knows how to take full advantage of a person's individual power. It creates a platform where this person can thrive. The challenge is to make this person conscious of the collective/society in which he or she lives and therefore the duties and responsibilities that come with investing capital and making a profit.

By the way, this is not an ode to capitalism or private property, but an acknowledgement to the spirit of adventure and enterprise that Steve Jobs represented. The late Apple founder didn't just create computers and software, he made them sexy. Before him, sitting in front of a computer (a PC, more likely) was a task to be endured. That is, until the arrival of the internet and youtube. All those clips of cats falling over helped us while the hours away on a rainy Saturday afternoon at work.

By contrast, Friedman's entrepreneurial credentials left an indelible mark in countries such as Russia and Argentina, to mention but two. Although his hands didn't get stained with the blood of the victims who were on the wrong side of his ideas, he aggressively pursued a "slash and burn" agenda which in the end gave us Tiannamen Square.

This is not to say that Steve Jobs was a saint whilst Milton was an evil person. They both set out to make money, as much and as quick as possible. In Friedman's case you could even say that there was an altruistic and internationalist streak as he went beyond the geographical borders of his native USA to try to export his ideas to the rest of the world. That his thesis was based on an almost total annihilation of the state was his ruthless and selfish "Mr Hyde" persona lurking in the background. As for Jobs, there have long been accusations of poor working conditions in some of his overseas factories, with one in China being dubbed "i-Nightmare".

However, it is the dilemma of export/import of ideas that first made reflect on both men and the influence they cast and continue to cast on our contemporary society. More specifically, it's the type of capitalism spoused by Friedman that made me think of Cuba.

At the moment my beloved island finds itself on a crossroads. One side points at more government control with the sad, possible outcome of insurgency in the long-term, the other path indicates openness and laxity. The problem with the latter is at what price? If history is anything to judge by, Russia, China and Poland are living testimonies of what happens when former totalitarian states want to experiment with the free market and Friedman's economic electroshock. The result is less democracy and more individualism. My option would be more openness and more opportunities for the many "Steve Jobs" we have in Cuba. This was the man, lest we forget, who made corporations respectable at a time when Nike, McDonald's, Shell and many others were taking a knock from the anti-globalisation and anti-poverty movement. Yet, whilst people railed against sweatshops, they kept texting away on their brand-new iPhones.

Markets cannot be left alone to run our economy any more than we can expect a child not to make a mess if we leave them alone with a set of watercolours and brushes. Milton Friedman and his Chicago School gang were wrong in that respect, in my opinion. What we can actively do with our economy is encourage individuals to grow more daring, to unlock their creative potential and to challenge themselves in a way that will bring some kind of benefit to society; whether their motives are still profit-making or not. Even if you still get renegades like yours truly who's never owned an Apple product in his life.

© 2011

Next Post: “Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Endangered Languages”, to be published on Wednesday 19th October at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Very interesting parallels between Jobs and Friedman.
    Ten years ago, I started out believing in free markets, but as I have lived and worked, I am more inclined to agree with you. The dynamics of the market are so complicated, that it is impossible to identify all the parameters, let alone the magnitude of each influencing factor.
    But, I still don't know if encouragement from society can create people like Jobs, Gates or Brin and Page. Although there is no logical basis for my thinking so, I somehow believe that such creativity born out of self motivation, and it will demonstrate itself irrespective of the circumstances of these individuals. I guess encouragement would probably bring forth more of such talents.

  2. This is a quite original, if not provocative, juxtaposition of two figures I would not necessarily have found to be equivalent in any way.

  3. Such interesting and provocative thoughts, Cuban. I'm grateful for them -- for you, actually, who throws them out there. I'll be thinking about this all day.

  4. I have come to this essay late as have been doing Open Studios (opening my art studio to the public) for the last three days. Interesting and provocative essay -

  5. Thank you very much for your comments.

    Greetings from London,

  6. La verdad, Cubano. I agree with your points completely. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  7. Very interesting commentary on the “I”, individualism and Friedman economics. One of your better posts!

    My teenaged son pointed out that the many images of Jobs with a tablet, playing God, are disrespectful since Jobs was a Buddhist. Also his company’s labor practices in China were less than saintly. Still, I love Apple products since my Mac SE back in college. I love the user-friendly interface and virus protection. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers has a fascinating analysis of the circumstances and opportunities that allowed Jobs to be who he was.

  8. superbe!
    très intéressante comme comparaison!

    Jobs was quite a character to compare given his unusual genius to give us what customers can so easily use, enjoy and build upon.

    admirable !
    elisabeth du midi

  9. Thanks a lot for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  10. This is a great write up. When you talk of your beloved island, I think about my beloved country (well, one of them, as I am Tanzanian as well as Kenyan)and its transition from socialist to capitalist economic programs. And your thoughts on individuality vs. individualism, I really enjoyed! Thanks.

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