In 2001 I wrote a book entitled The Middle Mind, in which I described a phenomenon, the titular Middle Mind, that operates in the interest of the social and economic status quo by managing the otherwise antagonistic forces of art and criticism. It manages these unruly forces by creating a vast culture industry that replaces or moves to the margins any oppositional art or criticism.
What is behind this Middle Mind strategy? Nothing in particular. The Middle Mind is not a conspiracy; it is worse than that. It is something we are born into. It’s not easy to know when one is in the presence of the Middle Mind. It generally flies below critique’s radar because it has the advantage of not being associated with a particular political camp. When it works (and it almost always works to some degree), it becomes second nature. It has its effects and passes unnoticed. The Middle Mind is a set of self-limiting and self-disciplining understandings about the world in which we act.
The art and criticism produced by the Middle Mind does not need to be universal in order to be successful. In fact, it assumes that the presence of divergent thought lends it credibility, so long as that thought is present only in various niches—alternative presses like Melville House, community radio stations like KCRW in Santa Monica, and independent music companies like Sufjan Stevens’s Asthmatic Kitty. Similarly, Buddhism’s conflict with the values of consumer culture is tolerable because North American Buddhism is a subculture. From the viewpoint of the Middle Mind, it is just a little noise in the system.
Even so, the dominant culture is sensitive enough to the social and economic implications of Buddhist thought to find it useful to create a Buddhism in its own image: materialistic, entrepreneurial, and consumerist. Corporations like Apple learned long ago that they can associate their products with cultural icons of opposition—like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and the Buddha—in order to move product. In Apple’s early years, it presented itself as a countercultural force opposed to big, soulless IBM. Unlike IBM, soulful Apple used the mystique of Zen and other religious traditions to create a technological image of the spiritual. The clean, unadorned design of Apple’s products created a “design revolution” through its use of the stark simplicity of Zen art and calligraphy. But the Zen influence did not stop with design. As Brett T. Robinson, author of Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs, has commented, “The iconic iPod campaign shows dancers in shadow form, connoting the bodiless, spiritual quality of being immersed in music.” For Jobs, the computer was a “spiritual liberator.” This strategy has been so successful over the years that even IBM now uses the Smiling Mind app to introduce its workers to stress reduction through meditation.
But, of course, Apple is IBM now, and the claim that it is informed by Buddhist values attracts a lot more skepticism than it did in the 1980s. Now it seems more credible to say that Apple was merely the first manufacturer to use Buddhism to brand its products. These days, Buddha branding of all sorts of things has created the oxymoron of a Buddhist consumerism. In the eyes of many, Buddhism is a religion for the affluent. There is today a vast soup of Buddha-branded commodities and programs that have co-opted an otherwise antagonistic discourse, just as the 1960s counterculture was long ago co-opted by Madison Avenue in what Thomas Frank called the great “conquest of cool.”
It is in this way that the socioeconomic system in which we live goes about creating its enemies in its own image—and then sells that counterfeit image back to us.
Which brings me to Aaron Sorkin and Danny Boyle’s movie Steve Jobs. There has been a lot of harsh criticism of this movie, but no one has suggested that it is not “serious.” It is a critical examination of a man whose persona drove the development, both early and late, of Silicon Valley and the high-tech industry. The movie would have us believe that it is a candid examination of this “flawed genius,” and it does put a harsh light on the man’s megalomania, duplicity, and lack of compassion. What Steve Jobs is critical of—Jobs’s relationship to family and friends, especially his daughter, Lisa, and Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak—is shown through a long, painful-to-endure series of quarrels. But this is not the seriousness we have been promised; it is soap opera.
There is no plot to the movie beyond the timeline of Jobs’s career. In three acts, it presents three public product launches featuring the charismatic Jobs. These main-stage launches are joined to backstage quarrels, while Jobs shuttles between the two spaces and between two very different versions of himself. The movie has the feel of one long and ill-tempered family spat. Its aesthetic is the theater of the petty and the unpleasant. Steve Jobs is scandal, is tabloid fodder (even if the tabloid is the New York Times), but it is not serious.
Which is a way of saying that this movie about the dishonesty of Steve Jobs is itself dishonest. It is true that for millions of offended admirers, the Steve Jobs image emerges with blemishes that will now become part of the way he is remembered. His cultish followers are not happy about that. On the other hand, the Apple mythology emerges unscathed, and that must offer tremendous consolation to his fans and, more important, to the tech industry that continues to benefit from the Apple myth. So while the world now argues about just how bad Jobs was as husband/father/friend, his narrative about the meaning of technology remains sublime. The film’s conclusion is shameless in its invocation of Dylan, Einstein, Gandhi, and John Lennon. (The original Apple—the Apple that Apple computers replaced—was the Beatles’ Apple Records, where artists didn’t “have to go on their knees in somebody’s office,” as Lennon explained.) Whatever Jobs’s personal flaws, Apple’s famously personal products are still about “think different,” they’re about rebellion, and that remains tremendously useful for the tech industry’s self-promotion.
In many ways, Sorkin and Boyle share Jobs’s hubris. In a critical scene in the film, just as Jobs is leaving his dressing room for the stage, Joanna Hoffman (played by Kate Winslet) encourages him, saying, “Now go out there and put a dent in the universe.” Packed into this statement is an attitude and even a whole worldview, endorsed uncritically by the film, that says, among other things, that the universe is here for us to put dents in, and putting these dents in the universe is not only technological innovation but moral progress, an unqualified good. As much as anything, Jobs was a master at selling this evangelical view of technology.
Were they more serious, Sorkin and Boyle would have looked more diligently at these “dents.” The slowly emerging truth is that Apple’s putative origin in Zen and the counterculture has displaced and harmed both. Yes, Jobs admired the simplicity and clarity of the Buddhist temples and gardens he visited in Japan, but everything else about his company functioned through dukkha: Apple’s monopolistic business practices, its indifference to labor standards in China where its iPhones are produced, its evasion of business taxes through offshore shell companies ($100 billion), and its rigging of self-enriching “back-dated stock options” for its executives, especially Jobs himself. None of this finds a place in Sorkin and Boyle’s movie. We are asked to be content with whatever seriousness can be found in a melodrama about a wealthy but selfish father abandoning his own daughter.
The criticism in Steve Jobs is the criticism of no criticism.
More recently, the tech industry has come under fire not only for betraying Zen and the counterculture; it now stands accused of a hostile takeover of the city that is the North American birthplace of both. It stands accused of selling San Francisco to its employees as a perk. (What tech-savvy urban hipster wants to live in Cupertino?) Critics claim that San Francisco is becoming one vast gated community. That story is not part of Steve Jobs, but it is told in ringing tones in Alexandra Pelosi’s new documentary San Francisco 2.0.
Pelosi’s film is straightforward. She asks two questions: how do the dot.com corporations and startups understand what they are doing in San Francisco and the South Bay? And how do the longtime residents of San Francisco experience the arrival of the techies? Then she lets people talk.
The youngsters (“tech bros”) in the employ of the tech industry are not unsympathetic. They’re smart, excited about what they’re doing, and just as open to new ideas as they are reputed to be. You’d say that there is something anarchistic about them if it weren’t anarchism swimming in comforting pools of venture capital. They are by all appearances having fun, enjoying both their work and each other, and they are really, really detached from what their presence means for the people living in a city with its own important history. Pelosi’s film reveals them as charming and bright, but lacking in “sympathetic imagination”—the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone else.
The techies live in a youth bubble. It is implausible to them that the “old people” they are replacing were once the artists, the poets, the bohemians, and generally, as Jobs would put it, the “different.” Their arrival in San Francisco, now a weird sort of bedroom suburb for Silicon Valley, makes literal the old Firesign Theater joke about the Trail of Tears Golf Course: “We’re moving them out to make room for you!”
And yet when the techies are confronted with these criticisms, they seem mostly impatient, as if they don’t see quite why they should be bothered about local issues when they have more important things to do, things that Steve Jobs understood better than anyone before or since—they are making people rich, and they are “creating the future.” Isn’t that enough?
On the other hand, many longtime residents of the city’s once diverse neighborhoods are, not surprisingly, bitter. And for good reasons: gays are being priced out of the Castro, Latinos are being priced out of the Mission, African Americans are simply being physically displaced as their homes are torn down in Hunters Point to make room for condominium towers. And where do art, music, and youth culture fit in this? Surely, many of the youthful techies enjoy the culture that the city has always bountifully provided, but just where are these artists supposed to live? And as for the city’s many Buddhists, how exactly will, say, Zen folks be able to continue to live anywhere near the San Francisco Zen Center when even a modest house rents for $5,000 to $10,000 a month? The Zen Center itself may be able to survive, but the sangha will be in exile along with other rent refugees.
Worse yet, as Robert Reich comments in Pelosi’s film, “San Francisco is a microcosm for what is happening not only in the United States but all over the world.” In his 2014 book Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen offers the most complete description of and justification for an economy dominated by work with “intelligent machines” (the world that Steve Jobs and his cohort inaugurated). In the economy that Cowen envisions, there will be three classes: an upper 10 to 15 percent of high earners who will be working inside the digital economy; a middle class of workers (30 to 40 percent) who will provide services to the high earners (via an “entourage” workforce of chefs, massage therapists, life coaches, high-end bicycle mechanics, and so on), and then a near-bottomless caste of the irrelevant, for whom Cowen’s best advice is “move to Texas where rents are cheap.”
But perhaps, amid all this mayhem, Steve Jobs has done us a favor. He has reminded us that counterculture and Buddhism share an ethical impulse. He has reminded us of this even while betraying both Buddhist and bohemian. Buddhism has been attractive to our recent countercultures (even the punk and hip-hop variations) because it articulates a nuanced ethical stance—the rejection of materialist and commercial values as well as the violence implicit in those values—that they were already trying, in an inchoate way, to live. For Americans, to adopt the role of Buddhist was and still is a way of refusing to assume the deadening and destructive roles provided by the society into which we happened to be born.
This mutual engagement is a comedy—a divine comedy, as Dante put it. It is a comedy in the sense that it ends in a marriage. As in any good marriage, American+Buddhism has provided us with a refuge from the horrors presented daily in the pages of the New York Times, but it has also provided a spiritual vision that challenges those horrors. It is perhaps the worst sin of Steve Jobs’s brand of techno-Buddhism evangelism that it has turned spiritual confrontation into a come-on for iPhones.
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