October 10, 2015

What's Our Obsession with Steve Jobs All About?

"Culture is not just on our screens, but also in the circuitry and institutions that make
those screens work," says UVM sociologist Thomas Streeter. His new paper examines
why the story of Apple CEO Steve Jobs is so important in American culture.
(Image courtesy of Universal Pictures)

As yet another movie about Jobs is released, sociology prof's new paper takes a look at America's interest in the Apple CEO

(October 10, 2015)  The new movie about Steve Jobs is expected to draw huge crowds eager to see yet another romanticized story about a well known business celebrity. Thomas Streeter, professor of sociology at the University of Vermont, explores why in his new paper, “Steve Jobs, Romantic Individualism, and the Desire for Good Capitalism” in the International Journal of Communication. He writes that this desire says “more about our culture than the man,” and that Jobs’ story fits perfectly with the romantic individualist story that American culture can't seem to get enough of.

We asked Streeter about the new movie, in theaters Oct. 9, and his paper, which suggests that movies like these help us imagine capitalism as being humane and having moral integrity as opposed to the speculative, predatory kind that reared its greedy head in 2008.

UVM TODAY: You write that narratives about Steve Jobs focus on his mastery of marketing, rock-star arrogance, and other genius-like traits. What do you mean when you say that "tells us more about the culture than the man?”

Streeter: Jobs is an interesting character, but if we were choosing whose story to tell based on the importance of their inventions or business innovations, we’d be telling stories about many other people alongside Jobs. Computer scientist Dennis Ritchie died two days after Steve Jobs. He was central to the development of the software and concepts that made the internet possible along with much of what makes your desktop computer, smartphone, and tablet work. Douglas Engelbart, who died in 2013, reconceptualized what computers could be used for back in the late 1960s, and invented the mouse and the windowing interface (i.e., the foundations for both the mac and windows computer interfaces). Either of them could be said to have invented more important things than Steve Jobs. But where are all the major Hollywood movies, documentaries, and best-selling biographies about Ritchie or Engelbart and the dozens of other key inventors whose contributions were as or more essential than Jobs?

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