Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
There have been two books partly concerning a man called Jobs that have become bestsellers in the United States. One was a chapter in the biggest bestseller of all time and the other a full-fledged biography that topped sales charts for little over a year. Both followed — the first by centuries and the second by days — the death of a towering figure who pioneered a new lifestyle for generations. I need not say the name of the first, given his fame; I could do the same for the second but for clarity’s sake, he was Steve. Both had beards, followers, friends, Levantine origins, and a mythos to each of their stories. But whereas the first had the blessing of providence in the ‘holy’ desert, the second had silicon hardware in a musty Californian garage.
When Steve Jobs exhaled his last breath in 2011, whispering “Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow,” it was as if a prophet had ascended into heaven. Magazine outlets published stirring eulogies; bereaved consumers placed post-it-note condolences on Apple, Inc retail stores; tech-giants reflected on the man who for many was the epicenter of a technological shockwave that reverberated across the world; that put, as Jobs wanted, a dent in the universe. He was a visionary, a dreamer, a modern beatnik. In image, he embodied the noblest aspirations of technology like no figure before; in reality, he often pursued his goals relentlessly, maybe viciously, to the direct detriment of those with whom he worked and lived.
As far as I could understand, he was a showman; to his detractors, he was a conman. From many accounts, that two-faced definition was close to spot-on. He would step onstage to a polite applause. He would comment on some lofty goals interspersed with practical jargon in his high voice, walking on his tennis sneakers in a frumpy stride, his outfit of drab blue jeans and pitch black turtlenecks a direct rebuttal to suit-tailored-corporate-culture. With simple grace, he would whip out a device, unveil a computer, start a projection, capturing the attention of his audience with the promise of yet another item coated in hype. His enemies called him a merchant of overpriced snake oil packaged in shiny casings; his audience gullible pseudo-hippies.
Death has not stymied the myth of the showman; it has invigorated it. To date, Jobs has been the subject of dramatic movies, multiple documentaries, a television show, and additional books and biographies. He has become an integral part of the cult of genius itself. His public persona has been reflected upon. His private temperament and ambition have been dissected. Jobs, like those same prophets of the past, took the time to plan his afterlife so-to-speak. The irony is that the story he supposedly authorized — Walter Isaacson’s voluminous best-selling biography — is not the story that people want to hear. In fact, most have concluded to stop listening altogether.
There is a consensus, albeit a flimsy one, that we have generally achieved “Steve Jobs” fatigue. We are tired of spending time discussing the man who was a founder and then head of just another big company.
You can find varying degrees of this opinion in online articles, film reviews, and regular blogs. And while YouTube is not exactly a pristine database, it does provide some insight if you are willing to look past the tasteless bile usually called comments. The central problem: why should we continue to be so fascinated with, as many people put it so eloquently, a dick?
As an ambitious person myself, I too fall prey to idolizing those deserving of emulation, if for no other reason than to see innovation married with ambition succeed. And if for nothing else, Jobs embodied that exact success. But such success is problematized by the cold fact that he had an irascible personality that made him, to put it mildly, a less than likable person. He alienated and berated his staff, aggrandized his importance, acted intermittently like an egotistical jerk, and instilled deep devotion and bitter resentment with those he dealt. He was not a knight riding into the sunlit future; chivalry wasn’t his forte.
Despite being an intense subject, Jobs remains elusive; the numerous mediums that have tried to deconstruct his complex character into explainable tidbits have each fallen shy of portraying the complete man. They each light key aspects of his personality, life, and legacy, but fail to actually illuminate his strange mind. Ironically they are not meant to solve the mystery of Steve Jobs; rather they perpetuate it.
The hard fact remains that his actions, regardless of the personality that drove them, affected how we actually live, work, and relax on a literal day-to-day basis. We’ve taken all these innovations for granted because they have become commonplace, a natural detail of the environment like a potted plant. The fact that I wrote this article on a consumer laptop embossed with an iconic logo; the fact that many reading this article will do so on a smartphone that can tell you where to find the nearest burrito shop; the fact that we can carry any song Mozart wrote hundreds of years ago in our pockets; these and many more are all indicators of the age Jobs and his peers dreamt of and drove others, including themselves, to achieve.
When the iPhone first entered the market, concisely introduced by the showman himself, here were some of the first instinctual responses recorded on the internet, compiled courtesy of The Atlantic:
“Touch screen buttons? BAD idea. This thing will never work.”
“No freaking way, Apple! It’s over!”
“This looks like a disgusting bastard child of an iPod/Cellphone/PDA. Yes it’s shiny, but I’m sure it won’t be so shiny once you touch it.”
My two personal favorites: “no qwerty keyboard? ojhsdodsagfadhfldgs!!” and “These comments remind me of the folks who thought the original iPod didn’t stand a chance”.
The devices he envisioned and peddled felt intuitive, natural, extensions of human willpower. They were objects that reflected the user, a personal embodiment of oneself that could be used anywhere. They were us and we were them, not to get too sappy. Jobs’s philosophy broke down the barriers of technology, bringing it directly to the consumers in some kind of pseudo-utilitarian-zen-buddhist corporate mantra that connected us to our tools in a way not since the first cavemen fashioned a spear out of stick and stone.
Steve Jobs, for reasons many will find stupid or uninteresting, will endure. More importantly, his story should endure. His entire life’s package — part tragic, part triumphant — questions our deepest convictions of “making it in the world.” He challenges the gilded assumption that virtue is connected to success, that having a pious spirit is enough for achieving the highest pinnacle of recognition — cultural immortality on the level of an Edison, with all the baggage that brings.
Time to scroll down to the next prophet waiting in line.
Featured image courtesy of The Guardian.