By the time Jobs stepped down as CEO, the transformations of the man and his company were total. In early August, Apple became for a time the most highly valued firm on the planet. And Jobs, once Silicon Valley’s enfant terrible, had become its éminence grise, with a personal net worth of $7 billion.
And yet, for all that, the period in which Jobs ascended to this rarefied plane has not been one in which his and Silicon Valley’s brand of commercial juju has occupied center stage, as it did during the nineties. In fact, there are signs that it is on the wane. As The Economist has pointed out, “Americans’ entrepreneurial self-esteem is now embodied by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These are indeed fabulously innovative companies with world-beating business models. Yet one wonders if they are increasingly the exception, not the rule … According to JPMorgan, in the late 1990s, employment at start-up companies regularly grew 1.2m per quarter. That has fallen to 700,000 since the current recovery began.”
Measuring the vibrancy of high-tech entrepreneurialism is a tricky, imprecise business. But what’s indisputable—dead obvious, in fact—is that, since the start of the new century, the animal-spirits-driven action in Silicon Valley has been vastly overwhelmed and overshadowed by the doings on Wall Street; and that the rampant and unbridled financialization of our economy by the investor-trader-speculator class has wreaked all manner of havoc.
Which brings us, inevitably, to the other big story of last week: the Occupy Wall Street protests that simultaneously took on significant scale here in the city and spread far afield. To the eyes of some (largely conservative) observers, there was something ironic, or hypocritical, about protesters in Zuccotti Park brandishing laptops and cell phones (many of them made by Apple) while howling about the depredations of capitalism.
As my colleague Jonathan Chait has observed, however, whether there’s actually a contradiction here all depends on what the Occupy Wall Street movement ultimately turns into. It’s one thing to denounce capitalism in all its forms while sucking down a Starbucks latte and tweeting madly from your iPad, but it’s quite another to object to a dangerously unregulated financial system and a radically unequal distribution of wealth while embracing free enterprise both in principle and in practice—and hugging your iPhone close.
In fact, I’d venture to say that Steve Jobs wouldn’t have it any other way.