Steve Jobs and Occupy Wall Street

I’m not a Machead. Never have been. I think they’re cool and for a couple of years I made my living writing programs for them, but I could never justify the price to buy one. No matter how cool it was.

I will admit to spending a great deal of time in front of an Apple //e many years ago. I loved that computer. It was great fun, and there was a community of people who had gathered around it who were willing to share what they knew, to teach you how to do a cool hack you could put into your own programs, It was a sad day when I had to give that machine up in the face of the inevitable march toward the IBM-style PC dominated world, and due to lack of space to put it. It was a great machine, and I still sometimes wish I could pull it out and play some of the old SSI games.

If that was the only way Steve Jobs touched my life, it would have been enough. But there’s just one more thing . . .

Jobs of course was the man who bought the graphical user interface to the common man. If you were born about 1970 or before you probably remember computers with windows of scrolling text, blocky graphics, and being able to only run one program at a time. The Macintosh changed all that.It had beautiful graphics, proportional fonts, and the ability not only to run multiple programs simultaneously, but to be able to see them all running at once and interacting with all of them. Bill Gates is supposed to have started screaming “I want THAT on a PC!” when he first encountered a Macintosh. If it hadn’t been for Jobs my favored desktop environment – Gnome running on Linux – would never have come about. Linus Torvalds might still have written the Linux kernel and Richard Stallman might have still created the Free Software Foundation to write the GNU toolchain, but it would have remained a curiosity of the computer science world without a graphical user interface to run it on. (Yeah I remember early X servers like FWVM in Red Hat 5.0, but I always found it hard to use. Besides, without the cheap commodity hardware developed for Windows machines, it’s doubtful Linux would have had a GUI, and if it did few people would have been able to use it.)

And I still haven’t gotten to the iPod, iPad, iPhone and other more recent Apple products because, frankly, I don’t use them. I’m aware of their impact, they’re just not something I’ve put a great deal of time into.

What does any of this have to do with the crescent Occupy Wall Street movement, which is rapidly growing into an Occupy America movement?

There are those who don’t understand the Occupy Wall Street movement (which I’m going to call the Occupy movement, because it’s expanded way beyond Wall Street). Some of them deride the protesters for using iPhones and Macbooks to spread the word and help organize the movement. “They’re creations of a one-percenter,” these people taunt. “Don’t you feel hypocritical using them?”

Look. First off, Steve Jobs created things. More to the point, he created things people wanted to buy and use, things people could come up with uses for that far outstripped anything their originators could have envisioned. I doubt very much that when Jack Dorsey put Twitter together he envisioned that it would someday be used to take down governments.

I’m just one guy. I don’t speak for Occupy. There are probably 1.4 times as many opinions about what Occupy is about as there are participants. But in my opinion, no one is saying people shouldn’t make things, or sell things, or even make money. The distinction is between someone like Jobs who makes money by creating and selling something, and a Wall Street speculator who makes money flipping convertible debentures (whatever those are) and leaves nothing behind to show for it except an extra zero in his bank account, or worse, actually destroys wealth for someone else as happened in the housing crisis. The problem is unregulated, unbounded Gordon Gecko greed. That’s what Occupy is railing against, not the basic capitalist idea of make something that didn’t exist before and selling it. (I know, exotic financial instruments didn’t exist before, but c’mon, if you can’t tell the difference I probably can’t explain it to you.) Occupy isn’t looking for some reactionary’s-idea-of-socialist agrarian economy. They just want basic economic and political fairness.

Besides . . .

Think back a scant thirty years ago. It’s 1981. (If you don’t remember those days, bear with me. Consider this a history lesson.) Ronald Reagan has just been elected president. The Internet is still in the planning phases, as is the IBM PC. (It was released in August of 1981 and didn’t make much of an impact until the advent of Lotus 1-2-3.) The closest the US has to a national network is Compuserve, which H&R Block is using to make a little money off of its big expensive computer hardware that would otherwise sit idle much of the year. Compuserve is accessed through dumb terminals – text only. The fastest form of communication is a primitive form of e-mail. Few people have Compuserve accounts. The most common ways of getting the word out are telephone, face-to-face meetings, and mimeograph (or photocopying) machines.

With the technology available at the time, I submit to you that it would have been difficult if not impossible to create the kind of financial chaos that ultimately sparked Occupy. Computers have sped everything up, made it easier, and that goes for financial transactions. It’s not unheard of for an automatic trade of billions of dollars worth of stocks to make millions of dollars in profit on moves of the stock of less than a cent. Probably less than a tenth of a cent. You just wouldn’t be able to do that with a photocopier and a copy of AppleWriter, even if you were running VisiCalc.

And I submit that organizing a protest like Occupy would have been impossible back in the day. Oh sure, there were the protests against the Vietnam War, and in the end they helped end that conflict, but those were organized by telephone at best, or by writing up pamphlets and flyers and manifestos and handing them out, or – most often – by people traveling around the country and meeting face-to-face to discuss strategy and tactics. The civil rights movement and the Vietnam protests spanned decades. Occupy has gone from an idea put forward by a magazine to a protest in one city to over 500 separate Occupy events around the world and counting, all in just over a month.

And it’s not confined to those cities. Anyone with a computer and a web browser can participate in Occupy (or, alternatively, sit on the sidelines and heckle and jeer), from anywhere in the world.

And again, I submit to you that this is all possible because of Steve Jobs.

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