We can mourn for Steve Jobs, but we shouldn't ignore the moral problems posed by the high-priest of tech-cool.
The high-priest of the church of stylish technology has died. And Steve Jobs, the man who gave the middle-class population of planet earth a billion products they never knew they couldn't live without was celebrated as something of a saint when he passed away. It was fitting.
In many ways he was a symbol of our trouble as people of conscience or even consciousness. What he gave us was innovative, creative and useful. The aesthetics, cleverness and brilliance of many of his products changed and grew to define our culture, not least in its insatiable appetite for new products. But our enjoyment of them has largely been dependent on doing so in an ethical vacuum. I can think of few pieces of technology I've owned that have brought me as much joy as my iPod has. But in a world where millions of people suffer and die needlessly because they do not have even enough wealth for clean water or basic healthcare, MP3 players, smartphones and tablet computers come with philosophical pricetags. Wonderful in themselves, they are morally complex in the context of a world of need.
Steve Jobs was not responsible for the excesses of global capitalism, and while I suspect his company was as complicit as any comparable one in turning the developing world into an underpaid workshop for Europe and North America, I do not want to vilify him. Jobs was the perfect symbol of the economic system under which we serve and which our governments are striving to prop up. Yes, the lust for the new has expanded landfills and CO2 emissions and driven consumerism. It has also brought us wonders beyond the wildest hopes of our ancestors. But the emphasis in that sentence must be on the word 'us'. Because there are millions who do not and will never share in the progress that the system of organised selfishness has given to the lucky (or those we Christians simplistically think of as 'blessed', in the way we might call slave-owners or Apartheid white South Africans blessed).
Pretending, as some on the Left do, that this system and the elites it by necessity creates has not given us anything worthwhile is ridiculous. But, then, forced labour built the pyramids. The Holocaust meant jobs for many. War that kills entire generations expands profits for some. Christians and indeed all people of conscience, need to ask the hard question that others will not: are the benefits worth the cost? It's a question every market-loving, profit-motivated economist understands in principle, but when we ask it we must do so with a different measure. Money is easy to count. Productivity fairly simple to measure. But if these are the supreme measure and the central focus of the meaning of life, then life for billions is not worth living.
The cost of our being able to afford the luxuries of which Apple products are a tiny fraction is that we lucky few are dwarfed by the less lucky, whose daily reality is as divorced from ours as an iPad is from an abacus.
We need to decide whether we are willing to allow these worlds to continue to exist in parallel. If we are, we must not feign surprise when we are bombed, reviled and rebelled against by those across the divide. If we decide that something needs to change, then joining protests like the eminently reasonable Occupy Wall Street and aligned demonstrations around the world last week is only a start. But we know we can't go backwards to some non-existent pastoral past. We live in a time of satellite phones and gene therapy, so going back to a pre-Jobsian world is not possible.
But we can choose to think and debate and work towards a world where technology doesn't merely drive consumerism and private profit in the name of the shiny and the clever, but aims to make the world less stratified. The man or woman who pioneers that use of technology will be truly worthy of hagiography.
This piece first appeared in The Baptist Times.
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