Mon Oct 10, 2011

A Sociology of Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs had charisma. What does that mean? Narrowly, it means something about the force of the man’s personality and its effects on those who worked for him at Apple. More broadly, it has something to do with his gradual emergence as a cultural icon over the past decade. The wave of emotion that washed across the Internet following the news of his death is evidence of how important he was to many people. Business leaders don’t often come to have that sort of cultural resonance. Apple’s storefronts became impromptu shrines and memorials, something we can safely say will not happen at gas stations or supermarkets when the CEOs of Exxon Mobil or Nestlé pass on.

Steve Jobs memorial, Apple Store Upper West Side

There has been a smaller but still noticeable backlash from those who found the scale and content of these initial reactions bizarre or repellent. They argued, variously, that personal expressions of grief by ordinary people for the billionaire CEO of a giant company are simply irrational; that those who insisted on giving Jobs full credit for Apple’s visionary products nevertheless happily absolved him of any responsibility for the conditions endured by workers in the factories where those products are made; or simply that Jobs was a personally unpleasant character unworthy of the love heaped upon him.

Whichever way you see it, there is clearly more at work here than measured assessments of someone who excelled in maximizing shareholder value. Jobs’ charisma is at the heart of it.

Charismatic Authority

Writing in the early part of the twentieth century, Max Weber wondered why people followed the wishes and demands of others in the absence of direct coercion. He thought there were three sources of legitimate authority: charismatic, traditional, and legal-rational. The first rests on loyalty to a specific person. You follow a person because of who they are. The second rests on loyalty to tradition. You follow a person because they are in an age-old role, such as Father, or Coach, or Priest. And the third rests on loyalty to a set of codified rules that are accepted on principle: you follow a person because of your assent to the legally-established office they occupy, such as Judge, or Supervisor, or President.

In practice, Weber thought, these forms would be mixed-up or layered one on the other or nested together. But he held to the idea that the different principles mattered. Weber argued that legal-rational authority was on the rise historically, and that it predominated in the modern world. The organizational manifestation of this form of authority is the bureaucracy, most obviously in the form of the State. It is also, though, closely related to the calculative rationality of capitalist markets and the institution of the modern corporation.

Despite the rise of the rationalized bureaucracy, Weber thought charisma remained an important and indeed ineradicable force in society. Charisma is a quality attributed to individuals, but it is more than personality or charm or celebrity or glamour. Although it is associated with religious leadership (the root of the word means “the gift of divine grace”), Weber didn’t care if the claims of charismatic leaders are ultimately provably correct or incorrect, true or false. Calling someone charismatic is a description, not an endorsement. For Weber, charisma is

a certain quality of an individual personality whereby [someone] is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, super-human, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are regarded as not accessible to the ordinary person … and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.

The idea that Jobs created a reality distortion field around himself was half-jokingly coined by Bud Tribble, who worked on the Macintosh project. But charismatic leadership is not just a cheap Jedi mind trick. Charisma is partly a personal quality, but also a social relation. Because it is a basis for legitimate authority, it’s something people must recognize and in some way assent to in order for it to be effective. Charismatic leaders are internally driven, but they also need to be externally recognized as exceptional and, crucially, they must succeed to some degree in order to find the followers they seek:

Charisma knows only inner determination and inner restraint … and [the leader] demands obedience and a following by virtue of his mission. His success determines whether he finds them. His charismatic claim breaks down if his mission is not recognized by those to whom he feels he has been sent. If they recognize him, he is their master—so long as he knows how to maintain recognition through proving himself.

Or to put it another way, real artists ship. The leader must deliver, at least to the satisfaction of his team or band of followers. Once he does, though, Weber argues that “it is the duty of those to whom he addresses his mission to recognize him as their charismatically qualified leader”.

Charismatic leaders, by the way, do not have to be kind, ethical, or pleasant people:

How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from any ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is … indifferent for purposes of definition. What is important is how the individual is actually regarded by … his “followers” or “disciples”.

Charisma and Internal Organization

Charismatic leadership is personal in nature and, to begin with, organizationally flat.

The administrative staff of a charismatic leader does not consist of “officials” … It is not chosen on the basis of social privilege … There is no hierarchy: the leader merely intervenes in general or in individual cases when he considers the members of his staff inadequate to a task with which they have been entrusted.

As John Lilly remarks, “The stories of how brutal he could be on the people around him — employees, competitors, and everyone else — are legion, and they’re not apocryphal. He could be deeply dehumanizing and belittling to the people around him … As a leader of people, you have to respect how much he (and more importantly, his teams) accomplished. But I struggle with some of the ways that he led, and how they affected good people.” The combination of inner vision, contempt for rules, and the ability to moblize others results in a leadership style that is at once rebellious and autocratic. It’s better to be a pirate than join the navy, but the Pirate Captain is in charge. He can interfere anywhere and his authority is absolute: “If I don’t hear great sound coming out of that prototype by Monday morning, we’re going to remove the amplifier” “I think he’s bluffing”, Andy Hertzfeld told Burrell Smith after this demand. “But what if he’s not?”

Charismatic leaders create new things, and new standards, deliberately setting themselves against the received wisdom—especially written rules:

From a substantive point of view, every charismatic authority would have to subscribe to the proposition, “It is written that … but I say …” The genuine prophet … preaches, creates, or demands new obligations. … When such an authority comes into conflict with the competing authority of another … the only recourse is to some kind of a contest … In principle only one side can be in the right …

Weber has some more to say about the attitude of the charismatic leader to the world of rational economic planning and bureaucratic administration:

… Charisma lives in, though not off, this world. Whenever it appears, it consitutes a “calling” in the most emphatic sense of the word, a “mission” or a “duty” … It is not that charisma always means the renunciation of property or even of acquisition … What is despised is traditional or rational everyday economizing … It repudiates any sort of involvement in the everyday, routine world.

In terms of personal style, this can be seen in the well-known photograph of Jobs sitting on the floor in his unfurnished house, or in his preference for particular kinds of eyeglasses or shoes or wristwatches. It is not so much a renunciation of material possessions as a disregard for the usual reasons for owning them, and a rejection of the parts of the world that don’t measure up. The photograph is meant to evoke a sort of monastic asceticism, certainly, but on closer inspection you notice the room is illuminated by what looks like a Tiffany lamp. Jobs admired Charles Lewis Tiffany for his ability to mass-produce beautiful things. As Larry Ellison remarked “The difference between me and Steve is that I’m willing to live with the best the world can provide. With Steve that’s not always good enough.” In much the same way, when it came to managing his organization the charismatic emphasis on a vocation or calling coupled with a contempt for ordinary measures of success resulted in questions like “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?” This moment with John Sculley, by the way, is the Mark 1:16-17 of the Apple mythos.

Weber describes charismatic authority in a partly idealized form. He notes that it’s only at the very beginning of a charismatic leader’s career that such a flat organization can be maintained, or the nuts and bolts of planning and specialization be blithely ignored. For one thing, the leader has to deliver on his promises in a way that satisfies those who are following him. For another, he needs help to get anything done.

The Routinization of Charisma

Any successful organization—charismatic or not—faces the problem of maintaining itself as a coherent entity as it gets bigger. How do you keep things working smoothly and effectively as the structure expands and differentiates? Simply getting bigger makes the organization harder to coordinate. More layers are necessary, there’s a greater distance between the center and the periphery, communication between units requires more time and overhead, there are more people to manage and more opportunities for politics. Positions and offices within the organization become turf to occupy and defend for their own sake. And so on.

Charismatic organizations, however, face an additional problem. A paradox of charismatic authority is that the leader changes the world—at least, the followers’ world—but once the leader dies, or moves on, those left behind must face the problem of how to preserve the new world the leader made. Charismatic leadership is transformative. Its mode of action is intense, personal, and often turbulent. But in its aftermath, those left behind may see themselves as having a legacy to preserve, a flame to keep alive, a vision to enact. There is a shift from transformation to preservation. With it comes the danger of calcification and stagnation.

This does not mean that the life of the group becomes static right away. To the contrary, many charismatic movements are also expansionary organizations, often especially in the aftermath of their founder’s passing. They want to convert others. That means energetic efforts to spread the word by conversion, co-optation, or coercion. But whatever about its edges, the core members of the organization quickly face the problem of how to codify and institutionalize the personal vision of the original leader. This is the problem of the routinization of charisma.

It is very hard to preserve the legacy of a charismatic founder within the structure of an organization. Most obviously, the perennial question of what the leader would do now must be settled by those left behind. Even if everyone is honestly committed in principle to preserving the founder’s legacy, as opposed to imposing their own plans, and even if everyone agrees in general outline about what the founder’s vision was, different people still will give different answers to the question, “What would the leader have done in this situation?”

It would be easy to see Steve Jobs as just the sort of egomanical leader who would sooner sink his ship than see someone else at the helm. But this is not what happened. Jobs faced and solved the short-run leadership problem by the standard method of choosing a successor. What’s more striking is that he also saw and attacked the longer-term institutional problem. In addition to picking a new leader and cultivating an echelon of executives that in his view were up to the job, he hired the sociologist Joel Podolny to run “Apple University”. (Podolny is now in charge of the company’s entire HR division). Initially, no-one outside the firm knew what Apple University was going to be. Many thought it was going to be some sort of extension of the educational offerings on iTunes. But it turned out to be much more ambitious and inwardly directed than that: Podolny was charged with anatomizing how Apple worked internally and turning that knowledge into something formally transmissable to new staff. At the time of his hire, I noted that Podolny’s research in Status Signals meant that he was much better-positioned than many bog-standard analysts to understand how Apple works. Whether that strategy will be successful of course remains to be seen. Charismatic leaders are notorious for being unable to envision their creation surviving without them and so avoid planning for that inevitability. In the wake of the founder’s death many charismatic organizations rapidly collapse, succumb to schisms and infighting, or drift aimlessly toward the rocks like rudderless galleons. Jobs and the rest of Apple clearly worked hard to avoid that fate.

Charisma, Craft, and the Division of Labor

So far I have been talking about Jobs internal relationship to the organization he founded. What about the broader community of people who used Apple’s products? Most of the public emotion came from them. To some outside this group, the strength of their response seemed preposterous—a grotesque effulgence of maudlin sentiment confirming every cultish, fanboy stererotype; and all for the love of a billionaire businessman who ran a company that made computers and phones. What to make of this side of things?

The double-edged logic of charisma is once again useful here. Charismatic authority is fundamentally destructive of the past, but the feelings of loyalty or commitment it generates can become the raw material for nostalgia. This seems especially true when those feelings are detached from any first-hand experience of the person they are directed towards. People inside Apple worked with the possiblity of having to face a living, breathing, perhaps very annoyed Steve Jobs. Their commitment to the organization—and their feelings for its leader—had some depth as a consequence. For people who just use Apple products, though, there is no such connection. This means “Steve Jobs” could become a wish-fulfillment figure on whom to project one’s own feelings—a kind of celebrity, in other words, rather than an organizational leader. The connection feels strong because of one’s own life-course and the role of some piece of computer hardware or software in it: the first Mac you owned and what you did with it, the code you write now and the standards you set for it. Their legendary social awkwardness notwithstanding, nerd culture has a thick streak of sentimentality in it, often tied to the cultural objects of pre-adolescence. (If you don’t believe me, browse around Reddit and wait for some posts titled “Does anyone else remember this guy/game/TV show …?“) It’s the positive end of an emotional dipole that has at its negative end the sterile, teenaged rage of anonymous online comment threads. From there, it can be just a short hop to an extravagant emotionality that quickly becomes kitsch: the nerd equivalent of a Princess Diana Doll, a Commemorative 9/11 Musical Lighter, or a Velvet Elvis.

No-one had less time for that sort of treacle than Jobs himself. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he cleared out a large quantity of memorabilia from the company and gave it away to Stanford. Similarly, those swept up in the emotion of it all should probably remember that, as John Siracusa remarked last week, Steve Jobs was not your friend.

There’s more to it than kitsch, though. Jobs was indirectly responsible for many people’s careers—at least, that’s what many working in and around the world of software development and web design felt as they looked back. There’s little reason to doubt them. For a whole swathe of developers, programmers, designers, and writers, Apple’s products catalyzed their own interest in technology while confirming their belief in the value of good design. Kathy Sierra provides a good example:

We do not mourn Steve because of our feelings for Steve, but because of our feelings about ourselves. … Personally, I believe that much of our feelings for Steve Jobs are not because of our “worship” of his “genius”, but because his work has helped us discover our own.

Or, in a slightly different way, Merlin Mann:

You gotta be kidding me, you want me to use a Mac? Those things are toys, right? … I eventually bought my own toy. I wrote my thesis on a toy. I learned desktop publishing on a toy. And after I graduated, every job I’ve had since then has involved one of those toys. And it’s true to this day. I take photos of my daughter on a toy. My kid and I make music together on a toy. … I’m really glad Steve Jobs made the toy, I’m really glad he kept making it better and better, and I’m really grateful to live in a time when you can have such wonderful toys right in your pocket.

This personal connection people feel with Apple’s products, together with Jobs’ own standards of excellence in design and manufacturing, opens up a potentially uncomfortable channel. Apple used to be a niche company, serving a very small portion of the consumer electronics market. Its products were much more expensive than those of its competitors. That’s all changed now. (“Still angry how in 2001 Apple used their illegal monopoly of 3% of the market to force us into this hellish nightmare of devices that work”, Wil Shipley drily noted.)

During Jobs’ second tenure as CEO, Apple found a way to to institutionalize its ability to reliably innovate new products and bring them to huge new markets. They have coped far, far better than average with many of the problems that come with rapid growth. This has been accomplished partly though the company’s ability to decouple from its supply and manufacturing chain while still controlling it through logistical expertise and, more recently, sheer market power. This has allowed Apple to remain sharply focused on hardware and software design, and sales. In an earlier era, the result of such rapid growth would have been a far larger, vertically integrated company with many more factories and workers to directly manage. Instead, Apple has been able to protect its product-centered core—the part of the company made in the image of Steve Jobs—and still take full advantage of a globalized, disaggregated production regime, without being weighed down by it. This was Tim Cook’s main achievement as COO. To echo John Siracusa again (you really should be listening to his podcast), the result is a company that continues to act like a startup even though it’s huge. Apple makes the whole widget—design, software, hardware, service—but without owning the factories where the widgets are actually assembled.

This organizational success created the conditions for some of the backlash we saw last week. It is very unusual to see a company with such a large market have so much sentiment associated with it. At present, three aspects of the company now sit together in an awkward way. The first is the quite personal nature of Apple’s products—at your desk, in your hand, in your pocket—together with the fact that many people use them for creative or otherwise personally meaningful work. The second is the public success of Jobs’ relentless focus on excellent, elegant, beautiful design: “Design is how it works.“ The whole thing, not just the packaging. And the third is that, because it’s a huge company selling in a mass market, Apple’s products are assembled in factories in China by low-paid workers working in grim, relentless, dangerous conditions.

This is a well-recognized problem with technological utopias: goods that are simple and elegant to use are often difficult and dangerous to make. A wide gap may open between the consumers and the producers of beautiful pieces of personal technology: it’s an elegant, creative, meaningful future for me, but a lifetime toiling on a Foxconn production line for thee. This gulf is worse for a company like Apple precisely because there’s so much emphasis placed on the intimate quality of the object, and such close attention paid to its design. Jobs wanted people to love his products, take care to notice their craftsmanship, and be creative with them. They were supposed to help you make and do awesome things. But this love and attention to creativity is severed from the manufacturing process.

Too bad, you might say. Such are the hard exigencies of business life. Many a CEO would agree. But Jobs’ outlook makes that sort of cold, rationalized calculation difficult to sustain in a way that’s consistent with the company’s vision of itself. Charisma rejects this sort of thinking. “I want it to be as beautiful as possible, “ Jobs insisted of a prototype Macintosh circuit board, “even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.” For a long time, though, Jobs was happy to use lousy labor and bad tools behind the cabinet. Eventually, people took a look around the back. The result was a sort of cognitive dissonance.

The tension doesn’t arise just because the products are mass-produced rather than true craft items. After all, in a modern economy there’s no escape from the division of labor. Every good and service you encounter from your first cup of coffee in the morning to the paste on your toothbrush at night is implicated in a huge, interdependent, intensely specialized network of exchange. You can’t get away from it. Even the most intense survivalists dangle at the end of a supply chain of gear, goods, and cultural know-how. As a consumer, the question is which parts of this web you feel you ought to care about. Should your paper be recycled? Should your coffee be fair-trade? Should you stay away from tropical hardwoods, seek out local foods? Now, what about those consumer electronics you love so much?

The factories that make iPads and MacBooks also make components for other firms, but no-one paid much attention to the labor or environmental records of Samsung or Dell. People don’t care about those products enough. Because Apple was relatively small for so long, its customers did not feel much pressure to care much in that direction, either. There weren’t enough of them, anyway. But during its remarkable expansion in the 2000s, environmental and labor activists realized that the effort Apple had invested in its product design and marketing, together with the personal connection many people felt to their Macs, iPads, and iPhones, meant the company was a clear target for social movement activism and consumer pressure. Like the Nike boycotts of the 1990s, the emotional ties people had to the brand—which the company had spent so much time building and profiting from—were there to be appealed to and mobilized for other purposes. It worked, too. Nike pioneered the idea of a corporation that made tangible products while not owning any production facilities, but this decoupled structure wasn’t enough to save them from criticism. In Apple’s case, it became harder and harder for the charismatic leader to wash his hands of this aspect of his creation.

The Half-Life of Charisma

One last story from Andy Hertzfeld about the development of the Macintosh:

Since the Macintosh team were artists, it was only appropriate that we sign our work. Steve came up with the awesome idea of having each team member’s signature engraved on the hard tool that molded the plastic case, so our signatures would appear inside the case of every Mac that rolled off the production line. Most customers would never see them, since you needed a special tool to look inside, but we would take pride in knowing that our names were in there, even if no one else knew.

How will Jobs’ charisma persist at Apple? I wonder most whether his death will make it easier or harder for those who want to monitor and improve Apple’s labor and environmental practices. On the one hand, for much of his career Jobs showed absolutely no interest in these or related issues—his strictly personal liberal values notwithstanding. On the other hand, once Apple moved from its niche position into a mass market, the way his charismatic vision was built into the organization made it increasingly difficult for both Apple and Jobs to dissociate themselves from the conditions under which their products were made. There was too much of him in the iPhone and iPad, and he had successfully convinced many of his customers to see themselves and their creative lives in those products, too. Jobs was at times visibly irritated by the pressure from environmental activists. But the company responded to it, nevertheless.

The signatures hidden inside the original Macintosh model suggest how Jobs’ vision might have been extended to the production side of things. Though latent or ignored for a long time, with Apple’s transformation it might have reasserted itself—shoved along by outside pressure—in a way that made concerns with manufacturing conditions consistent with Apple’s overall view of itself. Like bad wiring and bad taste, bad production would ritually pollute the founders vision of things, and the users’ experience of them, in a way that demanded some kind of systematic response.

Apple has shown some movement in this direction, though there is room for plenty more. Now that Cook—the logistics guy—is in charge, a significant shift seems likely only if it is impelled from the outside. The natural constituency to give the needed push is that same group of people who found themselves unexpectedly affected by Jobs’ death. They face their own small crisis of charismatic routinization. They can choose to remember Jobs in a way that emphasizes only his personal character, which risks going down the Velvet Elvis route and instituting a sterile cult of personality that Jobs would have himself despised. Or they might press Apple to be more thoroughgoing and expansive in its commitment to the general principles Jobs cared about, and built into the core part of the company he made—pride in craft, devotion to excellence, a determination to use technology to enable creativity as widely as possible. The intersection of technology and the liberal arts. Of course, he might have rejected that interpretation. I don’t know. Steve Jobs was not my friend. But it will be interesting to see whether the new Apple will feel any pressure to exemplify his principles in this sphere—and whether enough of the company’s many fans will feel Jobs’ memory deserves no less.