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Steve Jobs was just a man

Rousseau is a voluntary exile from professional philosophy, where having to talk metaphysics eventually became unbearably irritating. He now spends his time trying to arrest the rapid decline in common sense exhibited by his species, both through teaching critical thinking and business ethics at the University of Cape Town, and through activities aimed at eliminating the influence of religious ideology in public policy. When not being absurdly serious, he’s one of those left-wing sorts who enjoys red wine, and he is alleged to be able to cook a mean Bistecca Fiorentine.

Amid all the hagiography related to Steve Jobs, we should remember to keep the man and his accomplishments in perspective.

A few hours after hearing of Steve Jobs’ death, it started to seem as if Princess Diana would have reason to be jealous (if she could still be anything at all), such was the outpouring of praise directed at the former CEO of Apple. “Praise” is, of course, the understated version of some of what we read, or witnessed at iStores across the world, where the behaviour often seemed more worshipful than you’d imagine was merited by the death of a man with no (ostensible) religious following.

But as Umberto Eco observed in 1994, the ongoing debates between supporters of the Mac and the PC have long been something like a holy war. PC users disparage the Mac faithful for embracing the paternalism of a world with prescribed choices, and Mac users sneer at the irrationality of us PC folk in making our digital lives so much more complicated than they should be.

“I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach – if not the kingdom of Heaven – the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation,” said Eco at the time.

“DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revellers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.”

As is the case with all cults, adherents tend to lose touch with reality. Something of a personality cult developed around Steve Jobs – partly because of the undeniable sexiness of the products he introduced each year, and more recently perhaps partly due to his well-publicised battle against pancreatic cancer.

Now we see Jobs lauded as the sort of innovator and business leader the world needs more of, despite the evidence suggesting that he was a somewhat abusive autocrat rather than the sort of consultative, politically-correct leader that regularly gets held up as an example to follow in business as well as in politics. There’s evidence of a double standard here, and there is also a remarkable lack of balance in the range of responses to his death and his legacy.

Just as much of the reaction to the failure of South Africa to grant the Dalai Lama a visa prompted either overly flattering portraits of the man himself or character assassinations, Steve Jobs is now either deified or demeaned, depending on who you read. The truth is, as always, not that simple, and we do ourselves no favours by embracing these false dichotomies.

Of course, Jobs changed the world, but he’s no Norman Borlaug, Rosa Parks, Thomas Edison or even Craig Venter. He refined and popularised various tools for making our digital lives more efficient, and more pleasurable. Apple, with Jobs at the helm, had mastered the art of making us believe that renaming and refining was the equal of invention – but it isn’t.

The iCloud is simply the cloud, as most of us knew before Jobs tried to get us there with fewer clicks of a button, and FaceTime is simply video-conferencing with a silly name. A mouse with one button, like Apple’s used to be, is simply a crippled input device. The most recent innovation, introduced at the launch of the iPhone 4S, is Siri – a voice-activated tool for performing various functions on your mobile phone. Siri no doubt has a lovely voice, but she’s doing the same job I’ve been able to do on my Android phones for the last three years.

An example of something actually invented by Jobs or Apple is difficult to find (just as it is for Microsoft). What they mostly do is package and resell the innovations of the real mavericks – those who truly “think different” (while perhaps respect [sic] grammar). What Jobs and Gates have historically done is encourage you to think the same – at least in terms of believing that their products, and their products alone, are the route to your digital salvation.

This is not necessarily or always a bad thing. Informed buyers can be aware of the costs and benefits of aligning themselves to one faction or the other, or mixing and matching if appropriate. I use iPods, but manage them with PC software because iTunes is horribly bloated and slow, at least on a PC. And I use PCs and Android devices because I want to tinker and customise, and I certainly don’t want to be told that Apple considers a phone app to violate standards of decency they have decided I should hold.

If you want things to just work, and don’t want to invest time and energy in learning how they work, there’s no question in my mind that Apple products can be superior. But as Andrew Orlowski points out, the problem is in claiming that they, or Steve Jobs, changed the world because it raises the question of how small that world – your world – started out as. A new way to do something we’ve always been able to do can be innovative, but it isn’t so by definition.

The endless queues around iStores on the release of a new Apple product, and the religious fervour accompanying the annual Apple product announcements, give the impression of a world of devotees that were letting Jobs do their thinking for them, rather than using the tools he introduced to do their own creating and innovating. This thinking is different, yes, but it’s perhaps not the kind of thinking that even Jobs would endorse, as much as he would have appreciated the resulting profits.

In an interview for Wired magazine in 1994, Jobs said there was a “solution to our problems in education. Unfortunately, technology isn’t it. You’re not going to solve the problems by putting all knowledge onto CD-ROMs. We can put a web site in every school – none of this is bad. It’s bad only if it lulls us into thinking we’re doing something to solve the problem with education. … What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”

One thing that certainly helps in fixing education is to encourage critical thought, and to discourage the binary worldview which says that Steve Jobs is either a techno-messiah or some sort of sweatshop-running magpie of digital innovation, taking and then rebranding other people’s ideas in furtherance of the cult of Apple.

But treating one person as so important and so meaningful to the world, when he was only doing the same thing as his competitors – sometimes years after them – seems rather hyperbolic. It’s true that he made computing easier for many, and has done the same thing for our smaller computers that also make phone calls. Whether this is a good thing or not is an open debate, because easier can often mean that there’s less for you to do, and less for you to think about. DM

Read more:

  • Steve Jobs: The Next Insanely Great Thing in Wired;
  • The Holy War: Mac vs. DOS in Espresso;
  • Why Jobs is no Edison in The American.

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