Feature

Steve Jobs: Does he deserve all the adulation?

Tributes from all over the world are assessing Jobs's legacy and character.

At Apple stores throughout the country, crowds of grieving fans gathered to share their sadness, leaving behind makeshift shrines of flowers, candles, and photos. Lengthy tributes to a man “who changed the world” filled newspapers, magazines, and websites, with some pundits comparing him to Edison, Ford, Einstein, and even Gandhi. When the world learned last week that Steve Jobs, the 56-year-old founder and guru of Apple had lost his long battle with cancer, said William Welch in USA Today, it triggered an outpouring of sadness and reverence more befitting a “rock star than a corporate executive.” People reacted as if Elvis had died, or John Lennon. That’s because Jobs was no ordinary executive, said Farhad Manjoo in Slate.com. Until he came along, personal computers were wonky devices that users operated by typing in clunky commands, portable music players were large and ungainly and stored too few songs, and smartphones were “perfectly serviceable” but nothing that anyone lined up to buy. Jobs revolutionized them all, replacing them with iMacs and iPods and iPhones and iPads that were both beautiful and an incredible joy to use. “Thanks to him, the world is a much different, much better place.”

Steve Jobs was clearly a genius, said Vito Pilieci in The Ottawa Citizen, but his genius was for marketing, not for invention. He wasn’t a true programmer or engineer, and as sleek and elegant as Apple products may be, the truth is, “they just aren’t all that original.” There were smartphones long before the iPhone and MP3 players before the iPod, and both the computer mouse and the graphical user interface of the Macintosh operating system were invented by Xerox. Jobs’s gift was seeing the potential in these inventions, and making everyone else see it, too. Jobs was more “P.T. Barnum than Thomas Edison,” said Jim Picht in WashingtonTimes.com. He certainly changed the way technology looks, and had an uncanny gift for selling the public things that the public didn’t yet know it wanted. But he didn’t fundamentally “change the way things work.”

There was also a real dark side to the man, said Ryan Tate in Gawker.com. “Bad Steve,” as employees called Jobs’s alter ego, maintained a paranoid, Orwellian culture of secrecy at Apple, and “in the pursuit of greatness, he cast aside politeness and empathy,” bullying and belittling the people under him to their breaking point. When one of Apple’s design teams met with him to discuss MobileMe, a failed collection of Internet tools, Jobs browbeat and humiliated them. “You’ve tarnished Apple’s reputation!” he screamed. “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” Bad Steve also had no time for charity, despite his $8 billion in personal wealth, and he built iPhones and iPads in sweatshops in the Foxconn factories in China. There, armies of workers—some of them below the legal work age of 16—assemble the devices in 15-hour shifts, while supervisors monitor their efficiency. At least 14 employees have committed suicide. Jobs “created many beautiful objects” and made billions for Apple. But he was hardly a saint.

You don’t “change the world by playing nice,” said D.B. Grady in TheAtlantic.com. Had Jobs not been an “iron-fisted visionary,” he would have settled for less than perfection—and Apple products would not have the quasi-magical elegance and beauty that set them apart. “Bad Steve’s” contempt for mediocrity was the “extra little something” that gave him the edge over his rivals, said Gene Marks in Forbes.com. Jobs had a vision of Apple products as Platonic ideals of form and function, and to realize that vision in a world where most people aren’t so driven, he sometimes had to be “a real jerk.”

It’s that quest for the ideal that is Jobs’s greatest legacy, said Ross Douthat in The New York Times. What he understood better than anyone is the “deep connection between beauty and civilization.” By relentlessly, even obsessively, pursuing “grace and style,” he gave us machines that make the user feel more human, not less so, and helped ensure that “the age of information would also be an age of artistry.” What Jobs captured, in all Apple products, was a “perfectly secular form of hope,” said Andy Crouch in The Wall Street Journal. With the swipe of a finger, the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad all offer users the hope that “ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful”: Ask for it, and virtually anything you care to summon will appear in your hand, like magic. How fitting that Jobs chose as his company’s logo the apple—“the very archetype of fallenness and failure, the bitten fruit”—and turned it into “a sign of promise and progress.”

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