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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011 03:32 pm

Gizmo-maker as god

The death of Steve Jobs and the Anerican need to believe

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Steve Jobs is dead, and the world talked about little else for a week. By now we have arrived at the transitional moment that was neatly described by columnist Rick Polito in the Pacific Sun – the one between “He was a genius who will be sorely missed” and “The battery has to be replaced at the factory? Really?” In another month, most people will have forgotten he was ever alive.

We’ve been through this before. From the candles on the sidewalks in front of Apple stores to the elevation of the victim to near sainthood to the laments about the loss of youthful beauty to cruel fate, Jobs’ death was a Princess Di moment for guys.

Have no fear, Applers. Eternal life of a sort beckons for the turtle-necked genius from Cupertino because, as The Economist explained, “The revolution that Steve Jobs led is only just beginning.” Exactly which revolution is beginning, however, The Economist did not make clear. Yes, Jobs improved standards of industrial design immeasurably, but it’s hard to see much evidence that his model set new standards for U.S. industry. His insistence on looks as well as brains in his products was unique to his person rather than to a living culture. Interesting, in fact, how his products kept getting thinner and thinner as he did.

When the normally sober Economist writes, “Steve Jobs simply changed life,” the less besotted among us must laugh. (Three hundred thousand iPhone apps? Trust me, kids, there aren’t 300,000 things worth doing in this world.) But he did change the lives of many of the people who owned and used his products. Rich Miller, in a recent blog post, enthused about his iPhone, “That little device has allowed me to become a one-man multimedia news network for Illinois politics. I’m doing things now with my iPhone that I could only dream about just a few short years ago.” Such tools make reporting easier, and none of his admirers will begrudge the hard-working Mr. Miller that. But they are not what makes him a good reporter. Ultimately his phones, like any tool, are no cleverer than the people who use them, and even a software wizard like Jobs can’t program judgment or maturity into a phone.

More interesting than Jobs himself or his products are the questions his success raises about our relationships with technology, with large business corporations, and heroes. While Jobs was a big-company CEO who died with nearly $7 billion in his own bank account, he was not a typical big-company CEO, or even a typical high-tech company CEO. (He cut an especially dashing figure compared to, say, ber-dweeb Bill Gates.) Most successful CEOS know how to exploit existing markets. Jobs was brilliant at creating them. Jobs was famous for saying that he disdained focus groups. Instead, he gave people what they didn’t know they wanted yet. But they wanted it because he persuaded them they needed it. In that sense, people like Jobs don’t just anticipate the future, they create it.

And what is this brave new world? It is a marvelous thing that a Chase customer can deposit a check without having to go to the bank by taking a picture of it with her phone. Is it also a good thing? Not if you are working as a bank teller. And no, I am not peddling warmed-over Ludditism. Digitization as advanced by our Steve Jobs is creating what the wise men at McKinsey & Co. have described as a vast, automatic and invisible second economy, the biggest social change since the Industrial Revolution.

Bryan Arthur, one of the smart guys at the Santa Fe Institute and a researcher at Xerox’s PARC Intelligent Systems Lab, has pointed out that when farm jobs disappeared, we still had manufacturing jobs, and when these disappeared we migrated to service jobs. Converting information and commerce to electronic digits shrinks this last repository of jobs. The second economy is generating lots of wealth, but that wealth is no longer being distributed via jobs to the rest of the economy. For every new job that opens up creating business software, hundreds of jobs in fields such as bank telling disappear. So far the only alternative is going to work for the Apples of the world – and they won’t hire you.

For instance, Jobs ran that oddest of entities, the cult corporation. More than a couple of thinkers saw in the veneration of Jobs and Apple a version of the religious impulse, an Ideal that has always beckoned to those hungry to define themselves with reference to an Ideal. The burden of every saint is his followers’ expectation of miracles, and it is to Jobs’ credit that he kept coming up with what looked to be miracles at his product releases – events that to me smacked a bit too much of the revival tent.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.


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