This week's death of Steve Jobs hit the Bay Area especially hard, as he was a child of this region who lived here his whole life. The steady pilgrimage people are making to his home in Palo Alto testifies to the public impact of this very private man.
I am writing this post on a MacBook Pro, and at some point am likely to check to see if people made any comments about it on my iPhone. Maybe tonight I'll make some final edits on my iPad. It's clear that Jobs has had a direct impact on my life, which is why his death Wednesday made me very sad.
And yet, Amidst all the hagiography that has followed his death there have been some discordant notes. On Thursday, listening to KQED Forum, I rediscovered how he would often berate and humiliate people to get them to do what he wished. And the SF Chronicle's obituary noted how he had conned Steve Wozniak out of money that was rightfully Wozniak's in the early years of Apple. Nobody is perfect, of course. But the shortcomings of Jobs were out of scale to those of many others; the same was true of his genius.
Mike Daisey and Andy Crouch have offered two of the more thoughtful assessments of Jobs in recent days. Daisey points out that Jobs and Wozniak originally conceived of Apple as an anarchic and freeing company, but that over time Apple code and policies became very closely guarded secrets. Daisey: "Today there is no tech company that looks more like Big Brother from Apple's iconic 1984 commercial than Apple itself." Daisey argues that the young Steve Jobs would not recognize or agree with how his older self conducted business. Sure enough. But that's true for all of us.
Crouch claims that Jobs was a "secular prophet." He finds coldness, not wisdom, in Jobs's oft-repeated assertion that death is "life's change agent." Compared to a leader like Martin Luther King Jr, who utilized his megaphone to seek a better world, Jobs was a salesman offering seductive but empty techno-balms for all our problems.
That's a serious charge, and to my mind an unfair one. Martin Luther King was a minister, whose oratory was explictly and proudly grounded in Christian theology. Steve Jobs was a tech company CEO, full stop, who never portrayed himself as a spiritual leader. If you search the app store for "Bible," you will find dozens of apps. The platform Jobs built is spiritually neutral, not anti-religion.
If we put too much faith in technology to solve our problems, we should not blame Jobs. He never asked us to do that; all he did was make and sell beautiful toys.