Our products, ourselves: The glorification and demonization of Steve Jobs

Hiro Komae AP Apple computer fans hold their iPhones and iPads displaying candle graphics during a candle light vigil to … Continued

Hiro Komae

AP

Apple computer fans hold their iPhones and iPads displaying candle graphics during a candle light vigil to pay tribute to Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and former CEO, at an Apple Store in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011.

Am I the only one who finds something downright weird — dare I say cultish — about the flowers and apples left as impromptu memorials to Steve Jobs in front of Apple stores around the country and the world? “I don’t think we’ll see another person like him in our lifetime,” said Nathaniel Hare, 31, a sound engineer interviewed in front of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. “The first piece of technology I see in the morning is my iPhone, and it’s the last thing I see at night.”

I once felt that way, for more years than I would care to admit, about a stuffed bunny that played the Brahms Lullaby.

I have been interviewing people of all ages about why they have such deep feelings about the death of Jobs, because I am genuinely surprised both by the quasi-religious attitudes of his many secular admirers and by the conflicting responses of traditional believers, from religious liberals who see Jobs as someone whose very corporate symbol casts the fatal bite out of the apple in a redemptive light to fundamentalists who despise him because he never acknowledged that his inventions were really created by God. Personally, I think the quirkiness and inefficiency of evolution is proof positive that if there were a creator, he/she was an unintelligent designer.

Leaving aside the usual crackpot members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who object to Jobs getting any credit because they believe that God is the inventor of the virtual as well as the real universe, there is a good deal of more moderate skepticism from people of, well, more moderate religion. They have no quarrel with Jobs’s inventions but with his presumed secularism.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Andy Crouch, an editor-at-large of Christianity Today, describes Jobs as “the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. He believed so sincerely in the ‘magical, revolutionary’ promise of Apple precisely because he believed in no higher power.”

Hiro Komae

AP

A woman touches an iPhone to light a candle graphic during a candle light vigil to pay tribute to Steve Jobs, the Apple founder and former CEO, at an Apple Store in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011.

Crouch makes much of Jobs’s oft-quoted 2005 Stanford University speech, in which he talked about his own pancreatic cancer diagnosis and described death as “life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it’s quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart, and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”

I admire this speech as an improvement on the traditional “the-future-lies-before-you” commencement address. When a man under a proximate death sentence tells the young they are dying too, it might be a salutary dose of reality. But I’m assuming that the Stanford graduates, despite their admiration for Jobs, were able to shrug off this death talk, just as many twenty-year-olds in early eighteenth-century New England must have managed to ignore the gloomy pastor Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Crouch, however, was very disturbed by what he saw as the secular narcissism of Jobs’s description of death as a change agent. He writes that “this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself and only the comfort of having been true to yourself. In the face of tragedy and evil — the kind of tragedy that cuts off lives not just at 56 years old but at 5 or 6, the kind of evil bent on eradicating whole tribes and nations from the earth, it is strangely inert.”

Of course the philosophy of being true to oneself is inert in the face of genuine evil — but so is traditional religion and the hope of an afterlife. See under: Holocaust, Rwanda genocide, slavery, etc. Yes, slavery. For every religion that opposed slavery when the antislavery movement began in England in the seventeenth century, there were many more religions that upheld it. Take a look at John Greenleaf Whittier’s once-famous poem, “The Preacher,” about the cleric who “Bade the slave-ships speed from coast to coast/Fanned by the wings of the Holy Ghost.”

But I digress.

The real problem I have with the Jobs-worshippers and critics, both secular and religious, is that they attribute way too much importance to what are, after all, only products. Even Crouch says that Jobs “kept hope alive” through a decade in which nothing but technology seemed to improve. He sees great significance in the fact that Jobs introduced the iPod only a month after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Really? I’ll admit that I wasn’t one of those who rushed out to purchase an iPod; nothing would have induced me stand in line for hours to buy what was, after all, only a smaller, portable and more convenient music delivery system that would be much cheaper a year later. However, the iPod as a hopeful alternative to brooding about terrorism is a laughable concept.

Jobs was without a doubt an imaginative and marketing genius, and the comparisons to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in obituaries are completely apt. But as for our never seeing another person as inventive in our lifetime, that is utterly irrelevant. If the past is any guide, our children or grandchildren will certainly see another such person in their lifetimes, unless we obliterate our species through sheer greed, stupidity and withdrawal from real social life (the latter encouraged by many of Jobs’s products).

I don’t know why the people who are putting soon-to-be-decaying apples in front of Jobs’s stores don’t put them in front of their computers instead. The idolators are mourning the products, not the man, because we know almost nothing about Jobs as a person. His somewhat personal Stanford address was an exception. For the most part, we only saw Jobs when he was stepping onto the stage and announcing a new digital device. Even those who call him a secular prophet know very little about his life apart from his work.. Jobs wanted it that way, and his reticence was part of his genius as a marketer.

Steve Jobs’s impact on his customers was analogous to that of a man who is great in bed but shares almost nothing of himself outside the bedroom. You know the man I’m talking about. The “product” he does offer – in this case, the greatest sex you ever had — makes the rest of him, which you don’t see, seem even more desirable and invests the sex itself with an aura of magic. “Magic” and “magical” are words used about Apple’s products in many of Jobs’s obituaries. Jobs did not actually invent his products; he imagined them and found the right people to develop them. But his dramatic announcements of each new version were designed to invest Apple with the magic that creates lines outside stores — to make people endow mass-produced consumer goods with an almost mystical, transformative significance.

Really, each new version of an iPhone, iPod or an iPad is nothing more transformative than the new models of cars that Detroit, in the good old days of a healthy American auto industry, used to announced with great fanfare every fall. And there is nothing new about people treating their possessions as extensions of themselves. I don’t doubt that the lucky man who owned a red Chevy Corvette in the 1950s was just as attached to his car as a forty-something man I interviewed, who said, “My relationship with my iPhone is more satisfying at the moment than my relationships with any person.” He added, “That’s a joke-but in a way, it’s not.”

Of course it’s not really a joke. Our relationship with our digital extensions of ourselves, however personal it may feel, is a one-way connection that depends entirely on the content human beings have installed in the toys. That some products look cooler than other companies’ products affects the way we feel about them, not what they do. Digital devices are mass-produced tools. That’s all.

This is not an anti-technology screed. As a writer, I remember with horror, not nostalgia, the days when “cut” and “paste” were not commands enabling me to move around large blocs of text at will but literal descriptions of what had to be done to rewrite a single paragraph in an article or book. But that does not mean that greater ease and convenience have made me a better writer, scholar or thinker.

Nor does it mean that early exposure to the digital-video world will make children better learners; on the contrary, there is considerable evidence from scholarly research over the past 15 years that early, frequent exposure to everything from computer games to traditional videos shortens children’s attention spans. This is not the place for all of the caveats about the impact of technology on the way we use our brains. The best cautionary book on this subject (also not an anti-technology screed) is Nicholas Carr’s
The Shallows.

The assertion that Jobs was a genius, after all, rests on his ability to intuit what consumers might want, before even they knew what they might want, and give it to them. He was a great salesman and we became his great customers. I suppose the Westboro Baptist Church would remind us that Satan was a great salesman. But then, so was Jesus.

Susan Jacoby
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  • jeremyharewood1

    I agree with you completely. I thought all of the adulation afforded to Jobs after his death was way over the top, but I suppose thats what always happens after someones death, exaggeration of their achievements.

  • jeremyharewood1

    I agree with you completely. I thought all of the adulation afforded to Jobs after his death was way over the top, but I suppose thats what always happens after someones death, exaggeration of their achievements.

  • jeremyharewood1

    I agree with you completely. I thought all of the adulation afforded to Jobs after his death was way over the top, but I suppose thats what always happens after someones death, exaggeration of their achievements.

  • WmarkW

    In our overly mass-communicated society, it’s inevitable that some people will attain a cult following far outsizing their accomplishments. (When I check my Yahoo e-mail, I learn about some of their doings. Someone named Kim Kardasian, who’s apparently very famous for reasons unknown to me, got married last week.)

    Steve Jobs came to symbolize “The CEO who was worth it”. Thirty years of creative inventions in a field where short-run companies are common, and in an era when top executives sometimes a life’s income on a couple year’s quarterly stock movements, is not to be sneezed at.

    But I do remember when the iPhone first came out and was heralded as revolutionary or synonyms, the Post ran an op-ed saying that the last “stuff” that fundamentally altered American life were TV and the Interstate Highway System that turned our nation into a vast collection of similar cities surrounded by a ring of suburbs. A transplant from the 50s would NOT think carrying telephones in our pockets, or wearing a jukebox on an armband, was a particularly noteworthy accomplishment in half a century of technological innovation. He’d wonder why our moon colonies didn’t pan out, and how we could vaccine polio but not AIDS.

  • JohninMpls

    I’ve been amazed by how much we’ve overstated the importance of these products. I understand the innovative force of the iPhone and how it helped shape the smartphone market, and I understand how the iPod helped to standardize our expectations for our personal media devices. But how transformative is this technology?

    Apple has done a great job at creating a need for the toys that is has created. I hesitate to describe these products as technological advances, because they don’t seem to have addressed any actual unmet need.

    The iPad is the strangest of these products, because it seems like a counterintuitive concept. There was nothing like this on the market because there didn’t seem to be a need for what was basically a larger iPhone that doesn’t make calls. You don’t need an iPad to do anything better or faster. You need an iPad because you don’t have an iPad. It’s as if Jobs found a way to market ice to the Inuit. Or, rather, he found a way to sell them swimsuits.

    So it’s hard for me to consider these to be technological advances, because they don’t necessarily solve any great problems. The ability to play Angry Birds on the bus doesn’t exactly move us forward as a people does it? In that way, I find the comparisons to Edison and Ford to be inapt. The iPod is hardly the incandescent light bulb or automobile.

    So Jobs managed to get people to irrationally consume unnecessary products. I guess you could call that magical, after all.