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The Real Significance of Steve Jobs

October 6, 2011

The death of Steve Jobs seems to have unleashed a wave of communal mourning the like of which we have not seen since John Lennon met his untimely end in New York thirty-one years ago. I immediately thought of Lennon when I read about Jobs. Then I read that an ex-Apple employee was making the same comparison. So, as Lennon said in “Imagine”, I’m not the only one.

Like Lennon, Jobs has died relatively young, and at a point where his powers did not seem to be diminishing. Whether the world would have seen more works of genius from Lennon, and more products driven by Jobs’s inspired judgement in “dreaming up things that people will want before they want them”, we will never know.

Jobs shared with Lennon a rock star’s charisma. Both men knew how to promote themselves, in style as well as message. Both had a mystery about them – their personalities were not open books. Yet they had the ability to express concepts that most of us can undertand and relate to. Lennon gave us “Give Peace a Chance”, and “Imagine all the people, living life in peace”. Jobs expressed himself through his products – simplicity, usability and elegance.

Whatever we think about the Apple products – I personally have never got beyond the IPod – like Lennon, he was an icon of his age. Which of the two will remain longer in the consciousness of succeeding generations remains to be seen.

But for me, the significance of Steve Jobs is not just what he achieved, but what his life story exemplifies. Born of an Arab immigrant father and an American mother, adopted by a working class couple, co-founder of Apple from nothing, ejected from his own creation, co-founder of NeXT and Pixar and finally the inspirational driving force of the Apple we know today.

America does not have a monopoly on innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Yet its preparedness to take financial risks,  its perennial habit of taking ideas – many of them from other parts of the world – and turning them into world-beating products and technology, and its willingness over the two and a half centuries of its history to welcome and assimilate new Americans from all parts of the world set it apart from other nations. Those qualities are woven into the story of Jobs and Apple, and for me they sum up the American genius.

It was America that went to the moon, aided by German rocket scientists. America turned Briton Tim-Berners-Lee’s invention into the Web. Without the early adoption by American business of email, the world would be a different place. Bill Gates’s success with Microsoft moved computing many strides towards becoming a utility. And Jobs showed how parallel technologies can converge into elegant, multi-functional products. Not to mention Google – co-founded by a Russian immigrant – a company whose technology is so pervasive that we could scarcely imagine life without it.

If Steve Jobs had been born of a Korean father in Japan, would he have found the same success? Would he have done so in prickly, defensive China, whose economic success seems to have been based on its ability hoover up foreign technology and create its own versions at, shall we say, “competitive” prices? Or in the Middle East, the homeland of his birth father, where education in most countries seems designed to produce conformity before innovation? Or even Europe, where talent seems only to take you so far before you get lost in a tangle of envy, bureaucracy and risk aversion?

The story of Steve Jobs, college drop-out, visionary and marketing genius – a man whose persona and products are revered from Taipei to Turin and Tunis – is a compelling reason why, for all its current troubles and imperfections, you write off America at your peril.

POSTSCRIPT: For a similar sentiment from someone far wiser than me that I happened upon after originally posting this piece, go to this article by Juan Cole in Mideastposts.com.

One Comment
  1. Hi Steve,

    Excellent write up. I am planning to write one as well focusing on his speaking skills.

    Have a good one.

    Mohamed

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