Some random thoughts on Steve Jobs:
He personified his industry in a way few people do today. Not even Bill Gates has the star power of Jobs. Gates is more of a pure businessman (and now philanthrophist), while Jobs always seemed to be the innovator, the rock-star genius revolutionary. Who is the universally recognized person at the head of the American automobile industry? I guess you could say Rex Tillerson at Exxon-Mobil personifies the oil industry, and of course Warren Buffett is ultimate investor. But by and large, corporations and entire industries are faceless, ruled by come-and-go CEOs.
2 .Jobs was always a young person. Indeed he sort of epitomized, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the youthful, jeans-wearing culture of Silicon Valley. He was on the cover of Time magazine at the age of, what, 26? You can picture him in the lotus position, his room devoid of possessions except for an Apple II computer. He was such a rock star he dated Joan Baez (just like Bob Dylan). Jobs kept reinventing himself, but he maintained the rock star persona even when he was emaciated from illness. Just speaking for myself: His passing makes me feel a lot older.
3. The triumph of Steve Jobs was not merely the triumph of the personal computer, the laptop, the personal digital device and so on. It was the ultimate victory of the technophilic hippies. Before there was a Google algorithm or search engine of any kind, there was the Whole Earth Catalog, Stewart Brand’s compendium of “tools” that hippies could embrace. Jobs referred to it in his famous (and, since last night, much-quoted) commencement speech at Stanford in 2005. The photo on the back of the catalog showed a country lane, and bore the caption “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Jobs adopted that as his motto.
Jobs and partner Steve Wozniak got their start in business by selling a sound-emitting blue box that could enable a person to make illegal long distance phone calls for free. So he was subversive. This naturally grew out of the counterculture disdain for corporations and authority in general. (Eventually Jobs’s company would become the most valuable corporation in the world as measured by the stock market.)
Here’s Stewart Brand discussing the technophile wing of the hippies:
‘We - the generation of the ‘60s - were inspired by the “bards and hot-gospellers of technology,” as business historian Peter Drucker described media maven Marshall McLuhan and technophile Buckminster Fuller. And we bought enthusiastically into the exotic technologies of the day, such as Fuller’s geodesic domes and psychoactive drugs like LSD. We learned from them, but ultimately they turned out to be blind alleys. Most of our generation scorned computers as the embodiment of centralized control. But a tiny contingent - later called “hackers” - embraced computers and set about transforming them into tools of liberation. That turned out to be the true royal road to the future.’
I’m not sure how many kids today think of the hippies when they listen to an iPod or fiddle with their iPhone or send a text message. But go back 40 years and the world of information was not this decentralized. Communication cost a lot more. We weren’t exactly muzzled, but there were innate barriers to everything from communication to listening to a song. Information was top-down, and content producers were a credentialed elite. Steve Jobs helped explode that old model of the world. He was a revolutionary, and history will long remember him.