When Steve Jobs stepped down as head of Apple in August 2011, a stream of accolades began to flow that, upon his death, turned into a flood. Why is this? He invented things, right? One news report claimed Steve Jobs “invented the personal computer as a user-friendly device, invented the notion that the mouse could be our real interface with that computer, never mind the fact that he invented the category of iPod, iPad, and of course selling music digitally.”
Uh, no. The Apple II was neither invented by Jobs nor was it the friendliest computer of its day (think Xerox Alto, or Commodore PET). Credit for the mouse goes to Douglas Engelbart, and the Xerox Star sold with a mouse as the primary interface two years before the Mac. There were digital music players, smart phones, and tablets long before the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. The digital sale of music was taking place at least by 1998 (google Ritmoteca.com), years before iTunes followed suit. And Jobs was never a programmer or an engineer, anyway. Apple employees did that stuff for him.
Even when it does not misread Jobs’ contributions, almost all the commentary says that his “products changed our lives.” Really? The Vietnam war changed my life, going to graduate school changed my life, falling in love changed my life, having a child changed my life. Is an iPhone really in the same category? If Jobs and Apple had never existed and instead I used a Blackberry or a Nokia phone, or a Dell laptop instead of a Macbook, or if even we’d been stuck with Wordperfect’s old function keys instead of a mouse, how different would our life be, really? Sure, we’re fond of the Apple gizmos we’ve had over the years, but “life changing” is a stretch.
So what is this all about? I think it’s the story: the story of a rebel-hero who follows his inner conviction instead of the well-trodden path. From his jeans and sneakers to his flamboyant rock-star arrogance to the distinctiveness of Apple’s products to his oracular marketing style, Steve Jobs’ life offers a raft of details that flesh out a classic tale, the tale of a guy who bucked convention, followed his heart instead of the crowd, and in doing so, triumphed. Americans are deeply in love with that story. Combined with the repeated business successes – Apple II, Macintosh, Pixar, iPhone, etc. – Steve Jobs’ life gives us a chance to tell that story, to celebrate it, again.
We’ve been liking this story for a long time. Back in 1841, Ralph Waldo Emerson advised Americans “Trust Thyself… . Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist… . ” In 2005, Steve Jobs told a crowd of college graduates basically the same thing: “There is no reason not to follow your heart… . 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. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” Trust the self, your inner voice, not others; go with your intuition, not some calculation or common wisdom. Don’t calculate: pursue your inner passion. We are madly in love with that story, and recounting the life of Steve Jobs lets us tell it again.
Significantly, the Steve Jobs version of the story is one that is particularly easy to like: he pursued his inner passion, AND he got rich. Sure, plenty of college students get enamored with Henry David Thoreau, who sacrificed material wealth to live in his cabin in the woods, and Apple itself (with characteristic hubris) included a photo of ascetic Mahatma Gandhi in its Think Different marketing campaign. Mouse inventor Doug Engelbart, who never became particularly wealthy, has books written about him. Aficionados may know that Tim Berners Lee, creator of the original world wide web protocol, has made a point of insisting that the best standards are open non-profit ones.
But none of these economically modest technology pioneers has received anything like the attention that Steve Jobs received during his lifetime. The version of the story that really catches fire for us is the one in which the hero has it both ways: he rejects the dominant society, and then wins by its own rules. The rock star is the classic version of this tale; without all the record sales, we wouldn’t care. Steve Jobs is a rock-star tech executive.
What does it say about us that we are so in love with the story of the hero who pursues his inner passions and then makes it big? The American Founding Fathers had a rather more principled, rational version of the ideal capitalist in mind. Benjamin Franklin, in both his life and works, advocated frugality, reason, honesty, science, and hard work. A century later, Thomas Edison attributed a tiny 1 percent of genius to inspiration, the rest to perspiration. Neither would have thought it a good idea to do what Jobs did, take LSD and drop out of college to wander the world on a quest for his true self. Emerson, though, might very well have approved.
The standard story capitalism offers us about ourselves is more like Ben Franklin’s. We’re supposed to be rational, calculating shopkeepers, maximizing our profit and minimizing our losses while competing with our fellows in the open marketplace. But that’s so dry, so narrowly calculating. It might get you through the next contract negotiation. But when Jobs recruited PepsiCo president John Sculley to be CEO of Apple Computer in the 1983, he famously told Sculley, “do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life or do you want to come with me and change the world?” In strict marketplace theory, entrepreneurial individuals do not care about changing the world; the invisible hand is supposed to take care of that. Selling sugar water at a profit is a perfectly rational thing to do.
Yet often enough, we need something more, something enchanting, something that puts some fire in the belly. Ayn Rand made Howard Roark a brilliant architect, not a clever ball bearing manufacturer or stock broker. The tale of the creative rebel who follows his or her inner passion to success holds out the hope that our lives can have both meaning and well-being, a hope that we don’t have to choose between integrity and wealth.
Jobs is a significant figure. Future historians might view him as a late twentieth century analog to Walter Gropius, impresario of the Bauhaus movement, which transformed industrial design in the 1920s. But for right now, with the headlines full of financial scandals, intractable global debt problems, and growing inequalities of wealth, we view his life through the limited lens of the rebel hero story. It is not coincidental that people are wondering – and not just on the streets of Manhattan – if there are better ways to organize a society that enables a life with meaning.
Jobs’ story gives us a chance to imagine that, if even for a brief moment, if even for one person, integrity and wealth can coincide. It’s a good dream. But achieving that dream on a widespread basis is more complicated than the rebel hero story suggests. Let’s hope that, once the tsunami of tributes subsides, we can tackle the problem, in all its complexity, head on.