Steve Jobs: A Human


For my next column I was all set to write about the iPhone 4S, which was released to a flurry of reactions that were so-so.  It will make an interesting column either way once it is crafted. However,  it was only a few hours before I began writing it that I saw the news that Steve Jobs had passed away.  I tried several times to write the iPhone 4s article, but simply couldn’t.  Not mentioning the passing of Steve Jobs seemed like exactly the kind of inhuman corporate coldness that drove me out of the IT industry for a while.  Going on a long retrospective about him felt similarly dishonest.  It’s not like I knew him, and the net is already flooded with well-researched eulogies about him.  Most news agencies have these written ahead of time anyway, and just plug in the numbers when it happens.

I considered the middle ground of stating that he was an innovator and wouldn’t have wanted the world to stop just for him.  But even that felt like an excuse.  Even if I knew him enough to be able to say that with confidence, there is something very wrong with this approach.

A reminder for our times

Steve Jobs was an inventor (not a word that’s used to describe many people these days) at the dawn of the information age.  The things that he did certainly played a big role in accelerating this zeitgeist.  Yet I feel in his death a contrast that serves as a repeat of an ominous wake-up call that we’ve heard and too often ignored.

Our time is all about faster, and faster, and faster.  News travels around the globe in seconds: one cartoonist pointed out that the Twitter notifications about the east coast earthquake from a month ago might have actually outpaced the quake’s own seismic waves.  We don’t think about the amount of data that’s sent each day.  We don’t think about the pace at which we develop new technologies and new ideas.  We can’t.  It’s like trying to count leaves on trees while you drive down the highway.

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It was in recognition of this 24/7 planet that I almost wrote a “The show must go on” piece, but stopped myself.  No it doesn’t.  Sometimes the show does stop.  We control the show; it doesn’t control us.  And as the realization of his death ripples around the world and we ponder what it means, what I notice is just the fact that we’re pondering at all.  We’re suddenly not concerned for a moment about kernel bugs or version numbers.  We’re pondering a man instead.  We’re stopping.

The truth at twilight

I have a theory that it is in the moment of a person’s death and the initial recognition that follows that a person’s true character is revealed.  When we hear that a person has died, our subconscious does a manual override of our cerebral functions, and processes the full totality of what we’ve lost.

What I’m seeing is that we didn’t realize how much he had given to us until now.  My FaceBook friends’ page is flooded with RIPs about him.  With what people are posting you would think that he had been their best man.

I’m not saying this to make fun of my friends, but to rather recognize that we’re recognizing something.  We are noticing that this man, or at the very least what this man did (is there a difference?) made it into our lives.  He also broke the mold of people who normally fill that position.  He wasn’t an entertainer or artist or a politician or a religious figure (though some would probably argue he had bits of all of those).  He was an inventor.  He created, we took his creations in, and we’re now understanding just how much richer our lives are for it.

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I could repeat what I’m sure many commentators are writing right now about the original Macintosh, or the iPhone, or any of his major advances.  I myself remember taking a late 80’s Mac home with me from work to write my high school papers.  But let me take a different approach.

Were it not for him, we might not have ever known Woody and Buzz Lightyear, Lightning McQueen, Carl Fredricksen or Mr. Incredible.  It’s way unfair to try to put all of the magic from an entire movie studio on one man, and truth be known Jobs was close to selling Pixar when Toy Story finally give them altitude.  Yet all of our actions have consequences, and the consequences of Jobs’ purchase of Pixar include the creation of some of the most beautiful movies ever made.

We cast our reflections

We can perhaps see this truth a little more easily in fictional characters, and its why the deaths of, say, Jim Henson and Charles Schulz.  Nonetheless, it’s a truth that applies to all things we create.  A part of us goes into them.  Every object that you hold, everything around you that didn’t grow out of the ground, each one of them is a collection of people.  One simple beautiful eulogy I saw summarized this idea.  “RIP Steve Jobs.  Sent from my iPhone.”  Ponder that one a moment.

My primary topic area is web hosting, and there is a link back to that.  I wrote previously of my disgust at the fact that the smiling faces on the main pages of web hosts are usually someone who doesn’t have the first thing to do with that company.  Perhaps I can use a related example to display the true horror of this approach.

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I was in a chain restaurant once: names of the guilty will be withheld.  One wall had a timeline of the company’s history.  It started with the first location opened by the founder.  It proceeded through its development, with pictures of new products and new ideas that he introduced.  Then suddenly … he’s not mentioned at all.  Then late in the timeline the introduction of an animated version of him is.

Think we missed a little headline there?  Marketers would say “no one wants to hear that”.  But in the most literal sense, they’re dead wrong.  Yes we do.  We ache in our polymer world to be touching something a bit more real.

Now let’s see each others’

All that we own and the vast majority of what we’ve experienced are the sum total of others influence on us.  Our great modern crime is forgetting that.  If there must be a lesson that I squeeze in here to make this article sufficiently tech-related, it is to ask the entire IT world to please, please stop forgetting this.  Be human again.  The point of all of these toys is to enhance our lives, not be them.

We have sped our modern world up to unfathomable, out-of-control levels.  Steve Jobs was part of that acceleration.  Now, for a moment, we’re stopping.  I would argue that this is one of the most fitting tributes we can give to him.  Don’t notice so much how much he affected our lives.

Notice, instead, that that is what we’re supposed to be doing.  It is the point of all we do.

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