When Steve Jobs died, there was a sudden outpouring of grief and praise. Here and there, some journalists tried to draw attention to the conditions endured by the workers who make Apple products in China, or to Apple’s monopolistic practices in the United States. They were largely ignored, and the flowery praise continued. But the strangest thing was that very few authors seemed to be aware that Jobs did not, in fact, personally invent any of the products sold by Apple today.
For example, Jobs did not invent the iPod. The hardware of the iPod was designed by a team of engineers led by Jon Rubinstein, whose membership included Tony Fadell, Michael Dhuey, Jonathan Ive and many others. The software for the first iPods was not created by Apple at all, but rather bought from a company called PortalPlayer. Jobs did not even come up with the name “iPod” – a man called Vinnie Chieco proposed it. If these names do not sound familiar, that is precisely my point. The days of the individual inventor building some amazing new gadget in his basement are long gone. Modern inventions like the iPod are created through the collective efforts of hundreds of people, whose names we usually never hear.
I once briefly met the man who originally came up with the idea for the arrow keys on the standard keyboard. Just the arrow keys, nothing else. That was his individual contribution. It is a very small invention, a tiny part of a larger whole. Someone else – perhaps several people – invented the rest of the keyboard. And it took countless teams of other engineers and scientists to design every small component inside your computer. This is how most innovation happens in the 21st century: through social labor, not through individual strokes of genius.
Before there was social labor, in the 1700s and earlier, production and innovation were done individually. One single craftsman would design a product and then make it himself, from start to finish, with little or no help from others. This is how we got beautifully illustrated medieval manuscripts and baroque furniture. But making things that way was slow, and new inventions were few and far between, since every inventor worked alone. Leonardo da Vinci tried to design entire flying machines all by himself and failed.
Then a new idea came: getting many people together in one workplace so each of them could focus on making only one part of a product, with the various parts being put together at the end. This is social labor. This is what started the industrial revolution. Social labor enabled us to produce more things faster than ever before. It also let us design and build much more complex things than ever before, since it freed us from the need to keep the full plans for every innovation inside the head of a single individual. Inventors started working in teams, with each member only designing a small part of the larger whole. Our entire modern civilization depends on such devices that are too complex to be fully understood by any single human mind. Personal computers, the Internet, new medical equipment and drugs, the huge passenger aircraft – all of them are the fruits of a collective process of innovation.
Yet for some reason our society insists on giving all the credit for these technological wonders to a handful of high-profile “innovators” who are usually corporate CEOs, and whose personal contributions are often smaller than the contribution of that man who invented the arrow keys. I am sure some of this comes from the desire to attach a human face and a name to the products we love. After all, it is easier to thank Jobs for our iPhones than to thank a few thousand people we’ve never heard of.
But this sort of hero worship doesn’t just happen by itself. It is taught to us in school, where we are given a version of history that focuses almost entirely on the lives and deeds of “great men.” It is hammered into us by the media, who loves nothing more than to talk about famous individuals. It is the subject of countless books, movies and video games. We are repeatedly being told the lie that we owe our science or technology or way of life to a few exceptional visionary heroes.
I think this deception is, at least in part, deliberate. If we are made to believe that progress comes from this or that genius, instead of the hard work of millions of people, then we are less likely to challenge inequality and injustice. If those with power and wealth can persuade us that they are the motor of the world, then we will be less likely to question them. All the ruling classes in human history, from slave owners to feudal lords to corporate capitalists, have told the same lie to the people they ruled: “You need us.” But we do not need them.
Progress is not driven by a few great men with a few great ideas. It is driven by millions of ordinary working men and women who make the small innovations that add up to create new marvels of human civilization. Modern inventions come from the many, not the few. We will all probably contribute, at some point in our lives, to the creation of a revolutionary new technology or product. We should stop looking up to false heroes, and start taking pride in the collective achievements of humanity. Our achievements.
Mike Tudoreaunu is a Collegian contributor. He can be reached at [email protected]