The late, not great Steve Jobs

I write on a Mac and listen to music on my iPod. I am considering buying an iPad this week. I also anticipate the day when I will own an iPhone. My life, like millions of others, has been changed by Steve Jobs.

The world mourned Jobs’ death a few weeks ago. Typical of the tributes paid to him was this, from a university’s website: “There are great books, great events, great ideas and great visionaries that move us forward as a people and change the world. Steve P. Jobs was one of the world’s great visionaries of our time.”

Why, then, don’t I join the chorus of hosannas? Whether Job’s contribution to our lives is all to the good is debatable. The impact of Apple’s works on our social life is ambiguous, making us more connected to the larger world and alienated from our immediate surroundings, both at the same time.  Just think of the person across from you at a table who is texting a friend from across the world.

Research shows that multi-tasking leads to doing each task less well. We also gobble up information at an unprecedented rate from the Internet, then forget that same information more quickly than when we acquired it in the more deliberately and slower old-fashioned way. Overall, we know more than we’ve ever known before, yet at the same time many now read more but from a narrow stream of focus, narrowing tastes and reinforcing biases.

But there is another aspect to Jobs’ veneration that bothers me. His heroic status is seriously undermined by his personal moral failures and it this which prevents me from holding him up as an icon for young people. Where there is no vision, a people perish, the New Testament says. But it isn’t any vision that people need for sustenance. It is a moral vision that is essential.

Many great people had feet of clay. That is to be expected. After all, everyone is flawed but in a different way. So isn’t that Jobs wasn’t a saint that is troubling. His problems run deeper than that.

In his biography of Jobs, writer Walter Issacson quotes one of Job’s friends, “He had the uncanny capacity to know exactly what your weak point is, know what will make you feel small, to make you cringe.” It made me cringe when I read in a Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker article that Job denied the paternity of his own child, parked in handicapped parking spaces, “gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour. He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is ‘disgusting.’)”

Jobs wasn’t the kind of person I want to emulate. The world would be poorer if we were all like him. Whether genius requires such narcissism is an open question. But if we are to venerate Steve Jobs, let’s not be fooled into thinking that he was a good person. And it the vision of goodness upon which a people’s futures rest.



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