Can China create the next Steve Jobs?

 The New Yorker discusses a quasi-official Chinese attempt to find the next Steve Jobs–a sort of Apprentice with less Donald Trump and more pseudo-Confucian standards. As the New Yorker reporter Jiayang Fan writes, there is something bizarre in the contest. But there is also something revealing about how countries partake of international relations in a world once presumed to be post-nationalist.

The first oddity is the contest’s presumption that there should have been a Chinese Jobs or Bill Gates, someone who represents a transformative genius who commercializes innovation and helps countries to (as an American president once said) “win the future.” This is a nationalist argument-by-analogy that falls apart pretty quickly. Until the 1980s, after all, there wasn’t even an American Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, and earlier contestants–Henry Ford and Thomas Edison–hailed from an era that was, even then, decades in the past. And I don’t think that it’s just my provincial  (in every sense of the word) education that precludes me from naming the French, the Dutch, the German, or the Canadian Steve Jobs. (Actually, I can name the Canadian: Alexander Graham Bell.)

The second oddity, as Fan notes, is that neither Gates nor Jobs fit the script that the contest organizers wanted. Both were college dropouts, while the contestants were all apparently pre-screened on their high grades. One wonders if the ideal-typical Chinese school would have known what to do with Jobs, who was famously a terror to his teachers until a couple of them decided to show him how to handle coursework that bored him.

Yet the bigger problem with the idea is that the contest individualizes what is blatantly a collective story. But it does so because any other way of introducing the topic would lead to an implicit criticism of China’s society and governments. The paradox is that individual success–which China and other authoritarian states lionize–rests on collective foundations incompatible with illiberal states.

Even in the trivial sense, neither Jobs nor Gates created the innovations their firms helped commercialize. “Jobs” was really “Jobs and Wozniak,” and then later Jobs and Markkula, and so on–and Apple’s post-Jobs continuity (at least, in the second post-Jobs period) has proven that much of Jobs’ success rested on the marriage of singular taste with an organizational culture. Gates, similarly, co-founded his firm with Paul Allen, and during its most innovative period it is unclear how much Microsoft owed to Gates’ vision. (Besides the childish Windows-copied-the-Mac debate of the 1980s, there’s the plain fact that Gates didn’t understand the Internet in the 1990s as he failed to understand the post-PC age in the 2000s.)

Both Microsoft and Apple, moreover, are examples not only of their own success but of the dynamic nature of destructive capitalism in a disruptive industry. Reading about the history of Silicon Valley and the tech industry is reminiscent of the early days of the car industry. In both cases, huge numbers of firms entered, followed by most of them dying. For every Apple, there are a dozen Commodores; for every Ford, a score of Studebakers. The founders of the surviving companies were ex post facto recognized as geniuses whether or not they deserved the title.

That’s a lot of fluidity and instability taking place. And in both industries, the social networks of Silicon Valley (or Route 128, or Detroit, or wherever) allowed for highly-trained technicians and managers to move from one firm to another relatively seamlessly. As labor and ideas become more fluid, innovation becomes cheaper and hence more readily brought to market.

China does not lack for such fluidity in some parts of the market, as The Run of the Red Queen argues in its study of China’s manufacturing regions. But its particular genius for innovation today lies in process and logistics, not the creation of new industries or products. One might surmise, to follow on a long body of work (including theoretical work by Alexander Motyl and most recently including a working paper by Gary King, Jennifer Pan, and Margaret Roberts), that the Chinese government is more interested in breaking apart precisely the kind of social mobilization that is essential for that kind of innovation.

And so the critical flaw of the Chinese contest is revealed. The important thing about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, or any other individual whose name is metonymous for disruptive innovation is not the personal traits or ambition of such men and women. Rather, it is their ability to harness preexisting social and commercial networks to reconfigure sectors of the economy. Such fluidity may well require a sort of freedom of movement and organization incompatible with an authoritarian state.