Thursday, December 06, 2007
oPtion$ Book Club: Some Final Thoughts
Thanks to all who have participated in the "oPtion$" book club. Many thanks to Renee Jones, Darian Ibrahim, Michael Dorff, David Zaring, and especially Daniel Lyons for sharing their thoughts on the book, backdating, Steve Jobs, corporate law, and the nature of CEOs. Thanks as well to the commenters for their thoughts comparing the backdating at Apple with other scandals of recent vintage.
I wanted to close the club with some final thoughts about a deeper theme I found in the book. Yes, it's a parody, and yes, it's a delightful and breezy read. But I think Lyons is getting at some deeper issues here as well. One issue that I haven't really seen discussed is the book's view on Jobs's semi-messianic role in our consumer society. Jobs's religious fervor, and his cult-like following, are certainly ripe subjects for parody. But Lyons tries to go a little deeper into this phenomenon, in a scene that's reminiscent of the story of the Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov.
In the scene, a younger Jobs has traveled to India to study under a guru named Krishna Neeb Baba. Baba, a former psychology professor at Harvard, has a coterie of followers who travel from far and wide to hear his pronouncements. But Jobs soon realizes that Baba is a fake. In a scene back at Baba's house, Jobs accuses him of being a fraud. (pp. 184-87) Baba responds:
Look, is Catholicism a racket? Is Christianity a racket? Or Judaism, or Islam? Just because you or I don't believe in those religions doesn't mean they're rackets. They serve a purpose. A good and noble purpose. So do I.
Baba argues that people need something to believe in -- they have a hunger for meaning. Religion tries to provide that, but only for some. Then Baba provides Jobs with the critical insight he later exploits. "America is all about commerce," he says. "Someone is going to figure out a way to create material things and to imbue them with a sense of religious significance."
So is the iPod the new version of bread and circuses -- the 21st Century opiate for the masses? Perhaps. But there's also a sense that Jobs himself buys into the religion. After all, he is the genius behind the design. The iPhone is not a fraud, in that sense, because it does serve a purpose -- even if it's merely a consumer good. Despite his many flaws, fake Steve does has a sense of the aesthetic. And this "religion" is what keeps him going. When he's jousting with board chairman Tom Bowditch at the end of the book, fake Steve ruefully makes the following assessment:
For a moment it seems as if he's going to turn around and give me some big lecture about capitalism, and tell me how all my ideas, all my struggles, all my fights and failures and late nights meditating on products are nothing more than a way for people like him to make money.
In the end, money and aesthetics are too intertwined for fake Steve to ever pull them apart. But there is that final sense, here and at the novel's end, that money really comes second. And that is reassuring. Apple worship may be a thin and vulgar religion, but at least it has its own sense of integrity.
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And thanks to Matt for hosting this book club. It was a lot of fun!
Posted by: Darian Ibrahim | Dec 6, 2007 1:38:51 PM
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