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Sic transit gloria mundi—Apple’s Steve Jobs

It is likely that the passing of Steve Jobs—founder of Apple, makers of the Macintosh computer, the iMac, the iPod, the iPad, and the iPhone—has generated even more in the way of national and international attention than the death of Mother Teresa.

Condolences have poured in from folks ranging from the mightiest of world leaders to the most obscure computer geek—tributes to a visionary genius who wrought major changes in the ways in which we communicate, calculate and entertain ourselves.

Incongruously perhaps—in view of Mr. Jobs utilitarian design philosophy—vigils spontaneously sprang up outside Apple stores, complete with candles and eclectic collections of odd votives, ranging from apples (the fruit, not the product), through iPod earphones to the more mundane photographs and messages.

Mr. Jobs’ died tragically young and at the height of his success. He was just 56 years old—far short of his scripturally allotted three score years and ten.

The outpouring of emotion was in part an acknowledgement of feelings that like other iconic heroes and heroines of the recent past—the names Rudolph Valentino, Amelia Earhart, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley spring to mind—he died without having reached his full potential.

Many of those paying tribute to Mr. Jobs seemed particularly admiring of a 2005 commencement address he delivered at Stanford University and commended the advice he offered to the students.

He told them, for example: “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 … have the courage to follow your heart and intuition …”

Certainly this advice is in keeping with the spirit of the times, and one cannot deny the value of occasionally “thinking outside the box.” But to dismiss dogma as “a trap” and to be contemptuous of “living with the results of other people’s thinking” is merely a verbose endorsement Henry Ford’s culturally and economically suicidal assertion: “History is bunk.”

To be sure, in free and open societies, innovation is both essential (and inevitable). But today’s innovations are built upon the innovations of yesteryear. History—which can be rightly defined as “the results of other people’s thinking”—is a vitally important text book for living. Indeed, as the Harvard philosopher George Santayana observed: Those who will not learn from [it] are doomed to repeat it.

Similarly, Mr. Jobs’ musings on death in the same commencement address seemed wistful rather than inspiring—an unspoken acceptance of the inevitability of losing his desperate, years–long battle with pancreatic cancer, as well as a reflection of his utilitarian view of death as the “clearing away of old things” rather than the gateway to a larger life.

But, then, if Mr. Jobs could at all be described as “a man of faith” it was faith in himself not faith in a loving and merciful Creator. Indeed, from his obituaries, he comes across as a curiously self–absorbed and not wholly pleasant character.

He was certainly far from generous at least in any conventional sense of word. His first coup as a teenage businessman was to chisel his partner out all but $300 of his 50 percent share in a $5,000 fee from the game maker Atari. As a young millionaire, for two years he refused to acknowledge the paternity of a daughter born out of wedlock, condemning the child and her mother to life on welfare and food stamps.

Things did not greatly improve with age, success and rapidly accumulating wealth. One of his first acts on returning to Apple in 1997 was to terminate all of its corporate philanthropy programs. He also habitually parked in the company’s handicapped parking slot.

Nor was he a kindly employer. According to insiders he managed with a mixture of “withering scorn and carefully judged flattery.” It is claimed that employees were often reluctant to enter an elevator with Jobs for fear of being fired in the course of the ride. Yet, paradoxically, among his inner circle, he inspired admiration bordering on hero-worship.

All human beings are desperately flawed and a mass of contradictions. It is as mistaken to judge a person by the word of his rivals as it is by the flattery of his admirers. Indeed, it is a rare person who does not have a kinder and gentler side.

Yet I can’t help thinking how much more evident that side of his character would have been if he had had a little more faith in God and a little less faith in himself. What’s more, it seems a trifle odd that a person whose generosity of spirit was so rarely on display should receive accolades on a similar scale to that of a great soul like Mother Teresa. Sic transit gloria mundi. GUY HAWTIN

1 comment to Sic transit gloria mundi—Apple’s Steve Jobs

  • petrus

    I will confess to being a Macophile: I’ve been using Apple products as my preferred computers since the late ’80s. But I got a disconcerting glimpse recently into the sordid side of technology manufacturing when I saw Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs earlier this year at Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC.

    Mike Daisey is a monologuist in the tradition of Spalding Gray. He is also an avid fan and user of Apple products. But in this monologue, Daisey describes his trip to Shenzhen, China, where the vast majority of the world’s consumer electronics are assembled, and the appalling working conditions he found there. (Think of it as The Jungle for the Information Age.) Apple isn’t the only company with operations in Shenzhen, and perhaps other companies have had employees commit suicide by pitching themselves off the factory roof. (Management’s solution was to put up a fence around the perimeter of the roof.) But Daisey believed that Jobs (unlike other CEOs, owing to his iconic presence and sweeping influence) was singularly placed to make a difference, to effect a change. Sadly, no such change was forthcoming.

    If you are interested, you can read the following articles in the Washington Post: Jane Horwitz’s informational discussion of Daisey’s monologue; a review of the performance by theater critic Peter Marks; and a reflection on the topic by technology writer Rob Pegaro.