Steve Jobs, Superman
Filed under: Pop Culture | Tags: Apple, consumer culture, icon, innovation, philanthropy, reaction to Steve Jobs' death, Steve Jobs |
Steve Jobs’ death generated a huge outpouring of affection from the American public. Unlike other major figures our society has celebrated en masse, Jobs refused to feed the public appetite for details about his private life, nor did he feel compelled to wrap his or Apple’s pile of cold hard cash in the warm blanket of support for a social cause or substantial charitable donations.
Why, then, are we so affected by his loss?
First, Steve Jobs sold fun. Much has been said about Apple’s cool factor, but much of that cool was built on the notion that their products would make life more fun (remember those dancing silhouettes rocking out in the iPod ads!). We all crave an easier, more entertaining life, and Jobs designed products that helped us achieve that goal. I remember my pre-iPod MP3 player, and it was a complicated device that held maybe 20 songs. The original iPod combined with iTunes made digital music accessible, portable and cool for anyone. It revolutionized the music industry in the process. Time and again, he transformed clunky technology designed by and for engineers into simple, “magical” gadgets we all wanted for Christmas. Even in the midst of hard economic times, we remain a consumer culture that believes happiness can be bought.
Second, we like people who make our lives easier without meddling in our private business. There are similarities between Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg in their “I know what you want before you know it” philosophies. However, Facebook’s repeated attempts to default people into sharing more than they think they want with the public have given Zuckerberg a tinge of creepiness (The Social Network didn’t help). Apple’s attempts have been subtler and less intrusive. It also helps that when Apple releases a new version of a product, consensus is that the new is actually better than the old. Thus, he did actually know us better than we knew ourselves.
Related, Steve Jobs is different enough from the average guy, while having humble roots, that neither do we feel bad about ourselves nor resent his success. Adopted child, middle-class upbringing, college dropout, lover of typography, Buddhist, hallucinogenic drug experimenter, corporate failure, corporate runaway success, creative genius, recluse, showman, questionable but consistent fashion sense, husband and father–this is a unique combination. We don’t know anyone quite like him (and, therefore, don’t feel so bad that we didn’t invent the iPhone), and yet there is something for everyone to latch onto. And, because he died young and at the top of his game, we can admire him and feel sorry for him at the same time.
Third, innovation and success are core American values, and they appear to be in short supply in other areas. While our public schools stagnated and health care and higher education became astronomically expensive, Steve Jobs led the consumer technology revolution that created better, cheaper products. His single-minded pursuit of excellence, commitment to his vision, and confidence in the face of challenge are core ingredients of the American hero. He left a permanent mark on the world–achieving the immortality we all crave–and in our homes. At a time when we are feeling a growing anxiety that our best days are behind us, we pin our hopes to creative innovators like Jobs to lead us out of the darkness. To lose him now scares us.
Does our reverence for Steve Jobs mean that we care about gadgets or technology more than we care about curing disease or feeding the poor? I think it means we feel most acutely the losses that impact us personally, and our Apple products have become parts–fun parts–of our daily lives. I also think, as with all heroes, some people have an image of Steve Jobs in their minds that aligns more with their values than his. Driving to work the morning after his death, I heard a local radio talk show host state with confidence that Jobs would have traded all he built at Apple and Pixar if he could have developed a cure for his own cancer. I doubt that’s what we’ll read in his biography, but for the people who want to believe in that Steve Jobs, it won’t matter.