Two Reflections on the Death of Steve Jobs

I am of two minds when it comes to all the attention surrounding the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. I should say up front, by way of full disclosure, that I am indeed a Mac user.  I have really come to love the products and software that Apple has produced over the last several decades, my real familiarity with the Apple systems beginning when I was in journalism school (which was my minor field of study) in college. Those involved in photography, graphic design, journalism and other forms of publication have long been familiar with the advantages of the Apple systems and the ways in which they have aided journalists in their work. But my personal use of the Apple products (the Macbook, Macbook pro, iPod, iPod Touch, and the like) does not factor directly into my thoughts. Instead, I’m both edified and taken aback by the attention Jobs’s death was elicited.

On the one hand it is tragic that a man so young (56), regardless of his contributions to business and technology, has died. It is a tragedy any time someone’s life ends too soon, or at least sooner than one might otherwise anticipate. That Jobs was a very talented person compounds the sad milieu, for he will certainly be remembered — as he is today —  for revolutionizing much of the way we understand technology in the consumer landscape. He is largely responsible for the digitalization of music (iTunes), the expansion of broadcast journalism and entertainment (podcasting), the importance of aesthetics in product design (everything Apple has ever made), the effectiveness of smart-phone technology (iPhone), and so much more.

On the other hand, the amount of posthumous attention that Jobs is receiving, particularly in the ways that people are paying their respects and treating this moment as a solemnity, is a bit startling. What is it that merits this sort of attention? Does someone’s success in business, advantageously capitalizing on innovative technological advances, rank among noble reasons for veneration?

Noble-Prize recipients and humanitarian exemplars rarely get the kind of enthusiastic attention, in life and in death, that Jobs is receiving now. The reason I can’t allow myself to be swept away in the commemorative river — which strikes me as not unlike white-water rapids this morning — is that for as much as Jobs did excellent work and brought about some key technological developments during his lifetime, he did so through normative structures of capitalism that continue to wreak havoc in our world today. There are issues of systematic injustice that Jobs played into and of which he took advantage.  Then again,nearly every CEO does — that’s how someone becomes a billionaire.

I suppose the question is whether or not it is right for anyone to be a billionaire, to appropriate such wealth that as an individual your wealth ranks among the GNPs of some sovereign nations. The Christian tradition and the Franciscan movement that arises from within Christianity says quite clearly that it is never right.

This is not to suggest that Jobs was an inherently bad guy nor that what he accomplished isn’t worthy of remembrance, but everything must be taken in due measure and with an appropriateness worthy of the legacy.

I will certainly be grateful for the insight and creativity that Jobs brought to a company that has so inextricably become a part of my life, but I don’t think that I’ll be lighting any candles or visiting any posh Apple stores to pay my respects.

Photo: Pool

6 Responses to “Two Reflections on the Death of Steve Jobs”

  1. I think that the difference between Jobs and other “successful” people is the way he stepped outside of the box. So very rare. This is a quote from a speech he gave to graduating students at Stanford in 2005:

    “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. 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.”

  2. Dano…stop the presses, I think we might disagree.

    The lack of press for those seeking justice in this world is unfortunately a common occurrence. Not trying to belittle it, but it’s nothing new. I’ll chalk up most of your post to simply a difference of opinion, though I have to point out one true flaw.

    You point out that he accomplished much of what he did “through normative structures of capitalism that continue to wreak havoc in our world today.” I’ll give you this opportunity to further explain what structures you speak of in your response. One of the bigger causes of the financial meltdown was the “lipstick on a pig” mentality. Companies took advantage of people’s ignorance (scary part was, it wasn’t even ALWAYS ignorance) and pawned of mortgage back securities, debt, and the like as things worth having. Steve Jobs and Apple identified a whole in the market and filled it with a product. This time though, it wasn’t a pig. It was a stallion. He consistently make strong, quality products and did so to appease his base. Of his faults, his drive to achieve certain margins might be one to consider detrimental, which as you say is common among many (if not most) CEO’s. What trumped that, among most things, was quality. There’s a reason why Apple never had significant market share in the OS world, or why they aren’t fretting at the growth of Android. The never necessarily wanted to be the biggest, they just wanted to be the best.

    Maybe a future post of yours should consider what the alternatives should have been for Mr. Jobs. Should Apple have stopped trying to grow? If Francis was running the SEC/Treasury/Fed, what sort of limitations would he put on a company’s growth, and how would those be executed? You and i agree whole heatedly on the tragedy of the separation between rich and poor in this country. I too, agree, that many of the arguments used by other fiscal conservatives against increasing contributions of the rich to the tax base are completely ignorant to the reality of class separation. I just wonder how that same feeling would translate into regulation of business.

    I’ll leave you with one thought. So many charitable organizations rely upon the very technologies that Steve Jobs either invented or pioneered. Think of Katrina, or the Earthquake in Haiti. So many people who embrace (right or wrong) a smartphone in their life were given a multitude of chances to contribute to worthwhile causes via text messaging, apps, etc. That ability would not have existed were it not for Steve Jobs. To think that causes of justice and human rights have NOT benefited from Mr. Jobs’ work would be a disservice to his legacy.

    • Hi Brian,

      I appreciate your thoughtful comment (the first, I believe, where we’ve ostensibly disagreed!) I think Jobs did a lot of good in his life, the extent to which I (and most of us) simply cannot know. Nevertheless, it is the systemic injustice of the economic structure of capitalism that allows such a concentration of wealth that is problematic — perhaps I didn’t do as good a job demarcating that. Francis would never run the SEC/etc., his Rule of life forbade the handling of money. His response to those structures was a radical rejection of power, most of which rests in economic systems of imbalance and inequity.

      Peace,
      Dan

      PS – BTW, All this written from the keyboard of a Mac computer.

  3. Queen Mary Says:

    It is not clear to me how you moved from public outpouring of grief over the death of Mr. Jobs to the issue of whether or not anyone should be a billionaire. The two seem completely unrelated to me. I take no issue with your take on capitalism or billionaire-hood. I do take issue with your dismissal of expressions of grief. Expressions of grief are, in my experience, not for the dead, but for the living. Those who show up randomly at “posh” Apple stores to leave flowers or other physical manifestations of their grief are simply doing that, expressing their grief. It is not my way of expressing grief, but that alone does not make the expressions inappropriate or somehow an approval of capitalism or billionaire-hood. More interesting to me is why or how so many people who have never met Mr. Jobs are nevertheless grieving his loss. What was there about the man that has led people to so tangibly feel his loss?

    • Very good point, Mary. Thanks for your thoughts. They are indeed two distinct issues — I should have been more clear (as Brian points out above). Yet I cannot help but take note of the absurdity of such grief over the loss of a CEO about whom so little was known (he led a very private life, understandably so and totally his prerogative) and with whom so few had a relationship that would seemingly merit this collective outpouring. The question I am left with is: For what or for whom does “Steve Jobs” (the now-metonym) represent? There were others who died on the same day who were overshadowed and much more deserving of this sort of public response (see today’s blog post).

      • Queen Mary Says:

        I suspect that Steve Jobs represented different things to different people. I am not of the newer technologically savvy generation so I cannot begin to understand – or judge – the minds of others with respect to what Mr. Jobs represented to others — perhaps for some he was a symbol of living life in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis (keeping with the half full theme). On the other hand, I AM of the generation that knew, appreciated, and revered Mr. Shuttlesworth. I disagree with Brian’s assessment of the Washington Post’s coverage — although below the fold, the Shuttlesworth obit was much more prominent on the front page than that of Mr. Jobs. In fact the single column on the front page regarding Mr. Jobs has a headline referring to his vision rather than his life. Maybe it is his vision that resonates with those who grieve his passing. Or maybe those people don’t have any idea why they are grieving a stranger; maybe it is simply the tolling of the bell that attracts them.

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