Before reading this, you should know the following: I do not own an iPad, an iPhone, an iPod or a Mac. I abandoned my typewriter only recently. In short, I have not enlisted in the digital revolution and have kept my involvement to a desktop computer, e-mail and the Internet.
Given all this, it’s not surprising that much commentary on Steve Jobs struck me as over the top. In death, he has been lionized as the era’s greatest business leader. Walt Mossberg, the able and influential personal technology columnist for the Wall Street Journal, declared Jobs to be a “historical figure on the scale of a Thomas Edison or Henry Ford.” Longtime financial columnist James Stewart, writing in The New York Times, approvingly quoted the head of a design studio:
“Jobs is a revolutionary character. He shifted the industry and changed our lives through this amalgamation of culture and technology. ... That is truly revolutionary.”
No one can deny Jobs’s accomplishment. He created a company with sales approaching $100 billion and a market capitalization around $350 billion, rivaling Exxon Mobil. Apple’s products inspire (it’s a cliche to say) a cult-like following. The iPod changed the way Americans listen to music. Could the iPad and its knockoffs ultimately replace books and magazines? Perhaps.
People feel incomplete, so I’m told, if deprived of their Apple devices. There’s separation anxiety. I asked a tech-savvy friend to identify what’s so seductive about Apple’s products. He e-mailed back:
“What’s neat about Apple devices is that they feel like they’re handcrafted, even though they’re obviously mass produced. That’s the effect one gets from the company’s attention to detail, and I believe why people are so passionate about their products. In an age where high technology is disposable, Apple products aren’t.”
All this has made for a hugely successful business, but history’s demands are different. What makes something historically significant is the magnitude and permanence of its impact.
We remember Henry Ford because (a) the spread of the automobile altered American life in countless ways — it fostered suburbanization, long-distance family vacations and oil dependence; and (b) his techniques of mass production, when applied to other products, supported a vast middle class.
Harnessing electricity, identified with Edison, was similarly transformative. It effectively lengthened the day by providing good light after dark; it changed how factories were designed and run; it enabled everything electric that followed, including computers and the Internet.
By history’s measure, Jobs’s achievements are tiny. Transforming the music industry is not the same as transforming society. There are many technological advances that had a far larger impact on society: antibiotics, air travel, air conditioning and television. By contrast, many of Apple’s products are gadgets, as commentators have noted. Their ultimate social impact may be less than Facebook’s.
Jobs exemplified that familiar American figure: the self-made man who had a vision and, through determination and intelligence, popularized his vision, making a fortune in the process. In this, Jobs resembles Edison, Ford, John D. Rockefeller and others. It is this character who fascinates us and whose constant reappearance, frankly, gives us hope for the future.
This is one reason why Jobs’s death elicited such a powerful reaction. We yearn for others like him to help renew the U.S. economy. But that’s about us, not about him. His more modest legacy will fade with time. A century from now, historians and ordinary Americans will still remember Edison and Ford. Jobs will be a footnote, if that.