I made a mildly starky tweet about Steve Jobs that, alas, isn’t getting retweeted. It must be too soon for humor. Steve Jobs was a genius and it’s sad that he died so young. Walt Mossberg wrote a fine eulogy of the man he knew. I never met Steve Jobs, but know something about him—and about the people he inspired. When people leave flowers at Apple stores around the world, something big has happened. It’s similar to what happened when Princess Diana died, but Jobs had rather more important accomplishments than she had. A symbol has died, and the world rightly mourns. Here are 5 things to keep in mind about Steve Jobs:
- George Orwell once proposed that saints be assumed guilty until proven innocent, and if we apply this standard to Steve jobs, one thing becomes clear: he wasn’t always a good man. In recent years, he’s given inspiring speeches. When everyone was paying attention to him, he behaved. In his early days, as James Altucher makes clear, Jobs behaved less admirably: Jobs denied paternity of his first child, paid his child support with welfare checks, and swindled Steve Wozniak, his first partner. If character is what you do when nobody else is looking, Jobs may not have had much. And even when in power, Jobs was mercurial, moody, and a holy terror to work for, as Walt Mossberg hinted at.
- But Jobs was unquestionably a great man. Does anybody remember 86-DOS, formerly the Quick-and-Dirty Operating System? The thousands of lines of mind numbing code? Jobs cleaned that up with icons. Perhaps he ushered back a preliterate age, but icons are a godsend. And he kept the inventions coming: Pixar, the iMac, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad. Jobs wasn’t as great an inventor as Thomas Edison, he wasn’t as great a manufacturer as Henry Ford, he wasn’t the great artist that Walt Disney was, but he might have been the most amazing combination of those three—inventor, manufacturer, artist—the world has ever seen.
- His death has dominated both formal news, like NPR and Google, and informal news, like Facebook and Twitter. We knew his time was short, but it was still a shock when he finally succumbed. The mourning needs some explanation, though, since millions of people obviously didn’t know him, nor do they entirely grasp all he did (even the well educated can barely grasp all the changes Jobs made). All of Jobs’s gifts to us—sleek lines and elegance and simplicity that clearly took lifetimes of hard work and hard thinking—have been mocked by brutal pancreatic cancer.
- The symbol that Jobs chose for himself was an Apple. He could have picked something grander, as tech companies like Oracle and Palantir did. Or he could have made a gimmicky portmanteau like Verizon or Comcast. For a Zen Buddhist to pick up this bit of Judeo-Christian iconography (icons again!) and give it an ironic twist was genius. When the serpent gave Adam and Eve an apple, they were cast out of paradise; when Steve Jobs gave us Apple, he led us to the future. He replaced gargantuan machines with Macbooks, clunky mobile phones with iPhones, and entire libraries with the iPad. To the less technically inclined, it’s almost like turning water into wine.
- Europe and America and Japan are mired in recession; China may well be on the verge of one; the Middle East and Africa are as unstable as they always are. In short, people are not short on self pity right now. They’re asking, “Does the future still happen here?” Steve Jobs attempted all his life to lead us into the future. He was a consummate salesman who encouraged us to see him and Apple as one and the same, and Apple was the future. The people leaving flowers at Apple stores are mourning the death of the future. This, too, shall pass. There will never be another Steve Jobs, but his vision lives. We can still be inspired: go, and think different.
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