How Steve taught us to love our Jobs too much

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died on Thursday, played a major role in romanticising middle-class occupations. AAP

In a commencement address delivered at Stanford University in 2005, a speech that many are reading again this week, Steve Jobs told assembled graduates he was lucky to have found what he loved to do early in life.

Sharing the tips that led to his phenomenal rise out of the garage and into major market success on the back of the Apple brand, his talk had a clear message:

“… the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.”

Even as Jobs went on to describe the challenge of being sidelined by the company he founded at age 30, the language of love captured his sensibility: “I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.”

Jobs’s Stanford speech, one of scores he would deliver during his remarkable career, remains characteristic of his energy and enthusiasm. The belief that kept him going during his period in the wilderness “was that I loved what I did”.

With the passing of Jobs this week, we are also mourning a man who defined a new kind of worker.

The Jobs world-view consecrates the sacrifices of an ambitious, dedicated, and committed professional class that seeks recognition and passion in creative work.

The language of love and intimacy is central to this career project.

Over the past two decades, IT hardware manufacturers have made fortunes selling products through an association with the fantasy of satisfying, challenging work.

By 2010, BlackBerry’s ad campaign took Jobs’s lessons literally with the slogan, “Love what you do”. Creative workers featured in the campaign were seen conquering their dreams with the assistance of mobile technology.

Yet this fantasy is – in the classic sense of love – a romantic vision of the contemporary workplace.

Smartphones have blurred the line between our personal and working lives. AAP

It neatly avoids acknowledgment of the large majority in a global knowledge economy for whom the prospect of fulfilling work remains, in the words of philosopher Andre Gorz, “a bad joke”.

When iPads and smartphones function as the signifiers of what it means to live the good life, freedom no longer entails liberation from labour.

It is instead to be found in the release of personal productivity, in an ever-growing number of locations, with technology as conduit.

As images of mobile devices continue to invade public spaces and airwaves, their middle-class address should not go unnoticed.

As author Barbara Ehrenreich warns, “the cultural ubiquity of the professional middle class” poses a challenge for critical analysis.

“Nameless, and camouflaged by a culture in which it both stars and writes the scripts,” she writes, the middle class sets the terms for mainstream culture, and appraisals of taste and merit.

In our efforts to understand today’s global knowledge economy, however, we must recognise that the expectations and desires that glamorous technologies harbour are far from equally distributed.

Professionals enjoying the benefits of IT design and innovation benefit from an already substantial digital divide in a world that increasingly pivots on the distinction between what theorist Jack Qiu describes as information “haves” and “have-less.”

The choice to pursue long hours of volunteer labour in rewarding and enjoyable jobs stands in stark contrast to the forms of coercion and surveillance suffered by many of the world’s poorest workers.

These include the legions of employees whose job it is to assemble the devices that deliver flexibility to the wealthy workers of the West.

Worker suicides, self-harm and industrial unrest in the factories of Taiwan and southern China indicate the growing dissatisfaction among second- and third-generation migrant workers in high-tech assembly plants, including those for Apple products.

In this context, labour politics can be effectively understood by drawing on Jobs’s analogy, as the conflicting constraints, freedoms, and opportunities of the “lovers” as opposed to the “love-less”.

Classic definitions of love see the beloved as the only important thing in life, compared to which “everything else seems trivial.”

Melbourne-based philosopher John Armstrong’s book, Conditions of Love: The Philosophy of Intimacy, notes the combination of longing and rapture that accompanies “the romantic vision”, which leads to “the sense that one is in touch with the source of all value”.

It is this language that best describes the current flood of tributes to Jobs’s work ethic, as head of a company that transformed the work and home lives of millions of consumers.

But let us hope that it serves as a reminder of the labours of thousands of workers who build the devices so deified by our culture and who continue to remain nameless.