Back in early August, I recall reading a comparison between the NDP and Apple.
At the time both leaders were still alive, but had each taken a leave of absence for health reasons.
When Jack Layton left, it was unclear who could fill his shoes. When he became leader in 2003, the party appeared lost and was written off by nearly all media pundits. Through a combination of tireless work and personal charisma, Layton built the party up both internally and in the minds of the electorate. With each successive election, he increased the party’s seat count, and increased the NDP’s vote in every region. In 2008, the NDP could truly claim to be a national party, winning seats in Alberta and Quebec. Finally, after cancer and a hip injury early this year, his determination paid off with a record-breaking performance in the election. He turned the Parliament’s conscience into the Official Opposition and government-in-waiting.
Similarly, Steve Jobs returned to the company he founded in 1997 when as it drifted into oblivion. Microsoft was dominating the computer market and there seemed little space for Apple. Yet through his vision and dedication, Jobs brought Apple back. He introduced style to the personal computer and marketed the company aggressively to urban artists. While Apple didn’t invent the portably mp3 player, the iPod made it cool. Very quickly iPod became synonymous with mp3 player. The iPhone revolutionized the smartphone industry and recently the iPad made the tablet mainstream.
Both of these men were able to tap into the public consciousness to make their brands cool. And now cancer has taken the lives of both of these men.
Yet there is a stark contrast between their legacies.
I mourned the loss of Jack Layton, while I feel little about the loss of Jobs. A part of this difference has to do with my personal connection to each brand.
I have voted for the federal NDP consistently since turning 18 and in 2008 spent many afternoons knocking on doors in Edmonton-Strathcona to help elect Linda Duncan. I have seen Jack speak a couple times and met him in 2008 at a nomination meeting. I saw his commitment to bringing diversity and social justice to the House of Commons.
Conversely, I can honestly say that I have never owned an Apple product. I find iTunes to be an inconvenient and bulky software and have never been a fan of Apple’s proprietary hardware. I have built most of the desktop computers I have used, which allowed me to keep costs low while getting exactly the performance I want. This meant I was always tied to PCs, whether Windows or Linux. Apple products felt like you spent more just to get the logo. To me they are the Nike of computers.
But there is more to this difference than my subjective attachment to each brand.
To put it crassly: One dedicated himself to a life of public service, seeking to make life better for the people of Toronto first, and then Canada; the other made billions of dollars by making products that he convinced people they needed.
Now, it is not my intention to slander the legacy of Steve Jobs. Hence why I delayed posting this until after the long weekend. I really don’t want to come off as Christie Blatchford, who, mere hours after his death, rhetorically danced on his grave over the public mourning that followed.
Jobs was a visionary; however, it feels shallow to celebrate the corporate icon as anything more than he was.
One of my friend’s pointed out on Facebook how we ought to instead remember the exploited sweatshop workers who make Apple products and are often driven to commit suicide. Another friend questioned why we don’t mourn for the heroic Arab Spring protesters, murdered by tyrannical regimes. The sad fact of my generation is that too many of my peers identify with brands and logos rather than fellow human beings. The irony is that people are not mourning Steve Jobs the man, they are mourning his brand.
A similar criticism could be levelled against the outpouring of grief after the loss of Jack Layton. But where Layton’s death left us with a progressive message of hope, Jobs death leaves us with cheap gadgets.
The idea of a brand is morally neutral. It is a device that can be used for good or bad, progress or profit. Brands, as Naomi Klein argues in No Logo, are much more effective than products. She notes in the 10th anniversary edition how politics has absorbed the branding ideals, turning politicians into brands – notably Barack Obama, but arguably Jack Layton. The problem with this transformation is that brands tend to be shallow. They are substitute emotions. Layton and Obama became substitutes for hope in politics, while Jobs became a substitute for being hip and cool.
And this is where I think the two legacies diverge.
I believe there was more to Layton than his brand. While he would compromise with other politicians, it was always to advance a progressive project of his own. His support for Paul Martin’s budget brought in several NDP projects, and his support for a coalition in 2008 was dependent on a progressive alternative to the Harper Conservatives. Even with Stephen Harper, Layton would offer conditional support when it could bring better support for seniors or the unemployed.
Further, Layton’s positive brand inspired a positive legacy that succeeds his life. His death echoes Obi-Wan Kenobi’s final statement that “In death I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
Tragic though it remains, Jobs’ death leave us with no similar inspiration.
I want to add one additional note that doesn’t really fit in the above discussion. The extra tragedy of Jobs’ death is how preventable* it was. Had he employed modern medicine, rather than succumbing to modern snake-oil salesmen, he would still be alive today. It is unfortunate that this story is not receiving the attention it needs to. Alternative medicine kills.
*Modern science would likely only have bought him an extra 10 years, but death can only ever be delayed.