This blog post isn’t about Steve Jobs per se, but there are some things I need to say about him in order to make my point (if I in fact have one; writing this blog was an attempt to marshal my thoughts, let me know if I succeeded?!).
“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” Antony, Julius Caesar Act III Scene ii
Of course the irony in using that quote is that Antony most definitely WAS there to praise Caesar! So, let’s get the praising done because there is undeniably some due: Steve Jobs was an incredibly effective marketer who had a wonderful aesthetic sense. As to the burying part, that is already done and I am truly sorry for his family’s loss.
We all expect a certain amount of hyperbole in a eulogy but many of the comments made after Jobs’ death by people who didn’t know him still seemed excessive to me:
“he changed the world”
“I heard about his death and had a real lump in my throat and felt tearful”
“he was an iCon”
There were the pictures of candles arranged in the shape of an apple, flowers left at Apple Stores, friends changing their avatars on Facebook to pictures of Steve Jobs…The scale and personal nature of the mourning I was seeing frankly made me feel uncomfortable. I started thinking – why are so many people reacting to the death of this businessman as if it were a personal loss?
For some, how they felt about Jobs was inextricably linked with how they feel towards Apple. For many of us with special needs children the iPad has been a life-changer so I can understand that for some it was natural to mourn an individual perceived as the inventor of the iPad. As an aside, if you do a Google search you’ll find a lot of debate over who ‘really’ invented the iPad, with nods to Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick and Gene Rodenberry as far as the aesthetic is concerned and Xerox PARC, the Elograph, Grid Systems and others when it comes to substance. One article I found especially interesting was about one of the iPad’s ancestors, the Dynabook. In addition to discussing iPad genealogy there’s also some interesting thoughts on why an app-dependent tablet like the iPad could be seen as inhibiting the further democratization of technology: http://www.tomshardware.com/news/alan-kay-steve-jobs-ipad-iphone,10209.html )
I digress. Regardless of who you argue ‘invented’ the touch-tablet its clear that, to date, Apple has executed the concept best. The iPad is also the definite winner in terms of market share. But the iPad is an Apple product, not something personally created by Steve Jobs - he himself put it best when he stated:
“ Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Jobs#cite_note-96
I like the comparison of Jobs to someone like Henry Ford – neither of them was really an ‘inventor’ but both of them excelled at mass production and were incredibly effective at marketing their product.
Of course the philanthropic endeavours of businessmen can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. Great examples of this are found in the English quaker business families of the nineteenth century - Joseph Rowntree (social reformer), George Cadbury (employment conditions) and Elizabeth Fry (prison and mental health reform). In Steve Jobs’ case however, there is no altruism or philanthropy we can point to as he always expressed a preference for keeping his charitable activities anonymous. Whilst I respect his choice I personally don’t agree with it. I think individuals who are fortunate enough to be billionaires should openly support the causes they believe in – when Bill Gates and Warren Buffet donate billions it draws needed attention to the causes they are supporting. With respect to Apple, I note that when Jobs became CEO of the company for the second time he cancelled all corporate philanthropic projects (although some were subsequently reinstated). Apple knows that their iOS devices have been a blessing for many with special needs but the only response from them that I’m aware of is to use this information to sell more iPads (see the video used at the launch of iPad2 for an example).
Many would point to the fact that Jobs died at a relatively young age leaving a wife and children behind. This is indeed sad, but its also something that happens to thousands of families every day. We don’t know those people but then none of the individuals that I saw mourning Steve Jobs knew him either.
When Jack Layton died earlier this year some were uncomfortable with the public mourning that his death unleashed. The most well-known expression of this discomfort was the article written by Christie Blatchford for the National Post: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2011/08/22/christie-blatchford-laytons-death-turns-into-a-thoroughly-public-spectacle/
I felt at the time (and still feel now) that Blatchford’s article largely missed the mark. It was incredibly poorly timed – printed the day that Layton died. But I don’t think it was just Blatchford’s bad timing (or inelegant writing) that left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Layton was a politician that had very actively and very recently wooed Canadians in a general election, an election in which his party performed extraordinarily well. The NDP results in Quebec and becoming the official opposition were historic achievements and Layton’s leadership played a large part in bringing them about. He died shortly after his greatest triumph and the tragedy of that was keenly felt by many. Torontonians in particular felt a very personal connection with Layton - he lived in Toronto, served on the city council for years and those residents who are cyclists, members of the LGBT community, concerned with the environment or affordable housing are all acutely aware of his legacy in the city.
Having said that I think Ms. Blatchford was miguided in the case of Mr. Layton, I do think she correctly recognized the phenomenon of the “thoroughly public spectacle” that is now so often sparked by the death of a public figure. She pinpoints the death of Princess Diana as the start of this phenomenon. I didn’t understand the reaction to Princess Diana’s death at the time and frankly continue to be bemused by it now. It appears however to have set the precedent we now follow when celebrity figures die. The danger in this is noted by Ms. Blatchford near the end of her Layton piece:
“the public over-the-top nature of such events — by fans for lost celebrities they never met, by television personalities for those they interviewed once for 10 minutes, by the sad and lost for the dead — make it if not impossible then difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff”
I agree with her general point here – we not only risk losing sight of what people actually did achieve in life by exaggerating their achievements in the immediate wake of their death we also cheapen the act of mourning itself. If we claim that Steve Jobs “changed the world” then what do we have left to say when someone like Nelson Mandela dies? If we’re crying and bereft at the death of Steve Jobs, how do we cope with the death of those we actually know and care about?