There goes the man who invented the future

Late last night, I fired up my iPad for a final glance at my RSS feeds before hitting the sack – excellent, a new post from John Gruber at Daring Fireball. I always get a tiny buzz of excitement when I see a fresh DF post, no matter matter how brief.

And this one was very brief. “Damn,” was all it said at the time. The headline was only slightly longer, but it was felt so awfully huge  – “Steve Jobs Dies”.

I’ve been using Apple computers since the 90s, well before the famous prodigal return, back when Apple products weren’t exactly the aesthetic achievements they are today. For so long, being an Apple fan was a minority interest, a tribal identification, and one that frequently inspired scorn in others, for reasons I could never quite fathom. It was just the products I like back then – the first time I really registered who Jobs was when he made that deal with Gates. “Ah, he’s the Apple guy,” a moment of realisation, of respect. That respect grew and grew, as he unveiled candy-coloured iMacs and those beautiful clamshell iBooks and iPhones. The first Mac I ever got, rather than just used, was a graphite iBook – I admired it for a moment just this past weekend, quickly caressed that lovely curve when I found it in my wardrobe back home. It still works, of course; I kept good care of it, even wrote my first articles for The Irish Times on it. Just the Apple is missing from the lid, leaving a space where an Apple should be. Never found that graphite plastic Apple.

To see the last decade of success, where products that manifest a uniquely Jobsian devotion to good taste and a quest for perfection have become so ubiquitous and beloved, is to have that tribal identity vindicated. That loyalty proven right. The huge outpouring of emotion at the news of Jobs’ passing hints that it’s a pretty common feeling around the world, and yet it’s a bond that feels intensely personal, and one I doubt we’ll ever witness again in our lifetimes. It’s been less than 24 hours, and yet it feels the world has changed already.

I’ve written about the great man for the paper a few times, and below is my my article from the time of his resignation in August – it says all that needs to be said about how he touched people’s lives. But Gruber’s poignant farewell, a beautifully observed vignette, is what I’m going to recall when I think about his final few months, walking in the grass, with his family.

We knew this would happen, and we suspected it would be soon, and we dreaded it. But I find it comforting, somehow, that I found out from John Gruber on my iPad – a hint of Steve’s influence on my life, my interests, my priorities, my sense of self. Now time to go about staying young and staying foolish.

 

“Shedding a tear for Steve Jobs” from The Irish Times – Saturday, August 27th, 2011

The inevitable farewell, when it came on Wednesday evening, was typically minimalist and well-crafted – a concise letter by Steve Jobs revealing that he was resigning as chief executive of Apple, the company he co-founded in 1977, and becoming chairman of the board. “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, that day has come.”

Given his well-documented health problems in recent years – pancreatic cancer in 2004 and a liver transplant in 2009 have left him an increasingly gaunt, fragile figure – the move seemed to confirm many people’s worst fears.

Jobs’s resignation was always going to generate oceans of online chatter and command acres of newsprint – he is one of the most successful and innovative business leaders in history, after all – but what was so remarkable about the reaction was its emotional tenor. As a lifelong Apple user, I found myself struck with a sense of fleeting melancholy, and I was far from alone – reactions on Twitter ran the gamut from genuinely sad to predictably cynical, but the sheer number of people who professed to crying about Jobs’s resignation was extraordinary, an unprecedented collective expression of pre-emptive grief for someone who is still alive. But this sentiment was not limited to brief reactions on Twitter. Respected tech writer Om Malik posted an emotional essay: “It is incredibly hard for me to write right now. To me, like many of you, it is an incredibly emotional moment.” Reuters financial blogger Felix Salmon, meanwhile, admitted: “I’ve got a bit of a tear in my eye.”

Of course, the legend of Jobs paints him as a Messianic visionary with a quasi-religious following of Apple users. Seeing him forced to step down from his pulpit due to ill-health was bound to prompt such an extreme reaction, but the conspicuously mournful tone must have been astonishing to anyone who doesn’t follow the tech or business news – he’s just changing role, after all.

While many business figures inspire admiration, nobody has anything remotely like Jobs’s status as an icon. Warren Buffett is perhaps the next most beloved, but he has a sage-like, grandfatherly reputation. Bill Gates could conceivably leave a far more enduring legacy than Jobs if his ambitious plans for the Gates Foundation succeed, but even if he was to single-handedly cure malaria, it’s hard to see him being mourned in such a fashion.

The cult-like symptoms of the Apple fanboy have been analysed, and mocked, at great length, but while it’s easy to deride the extreme devotion so many people have to Apple and Jobs himself, it’s not so easy to understand what fuels it. It’s probably true that the collective sadness has a tinge of selfishness – the notion that we can no longer look forward to a steady stream of products of Jobsian genius is an unhappy one.

There is also an undeniable tribal element to it – back when Macs were as rare as hen’s teeth, not so long ago, being a Mac user was a statement of identity and the sense of belonging to an enlightened community was quite real. The ubiquity of iPhones and the growing prevalence of iPads is a sort of vindication for us early adopters, proof that given time, quality and good taste can win out over mediocrity and lazy design. That sense of identity is perhaps akin to that felt by sports fans – I wager Manchester United devotees will be feeling a similar type of anguish when another singular, difficult genius, Alex Ferguson, finally steps down after years guiding his team to unprecedented levels of success.

But perhaps the most relevant clue to the unique relationship Apple fans have with Jobs is in his description of the company’s core philosophy: “We’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts.” From this perspective, it’s possible to see Jobs as the world’s only tech auteur, as blogger John Gruber suggested a few years ago, a creative artist who works in the medium of technology rather than cinema. Jobs is like a film director, marshalling a talented team in the pursuit of his creative vision. Seen in this light, the devotion to Jobs is less an irrational attachment to a successful businessman and more the emotional affiliation of a loyal audience to a visionary artist. And just as the untimely passing of an actor or rock star can prompt viscerally emotional responses from fans, so Jobs’s resignation has elicited a surprising sense of grief.

Of course, in the grand scheme, though we get to interact with the fruits of his imagination every day, he just made gadgets, and nobody could puncture the inflated importance of our relationship with technology as elegantly as Jobs himself. In an interview with Wired magazine 15 years ago, Jobs offered a little perspective: “We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much — if at all.”

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