The Meaning Of Steve Jobs

Why do millions mourn the death of Steve Jobs, a man they never met?



Gawker curmudgeon Hamilton Nolan is right: “Steve Jobs was not God,” read the headline to his recent post slamming those “whose remembrances have already taken on a quasi-religious tone” and advising them to “seek help.” He was responding to the flood of grief that consumed the media, media watchers, and many others in the hours and days after Jobs’ death was announced.
And a mighty flood it was. Journalists recounted their interactions with Jobs over the years while others reminisced about their first Apple computers. Facebook was aflutter and Twitter atwitter, with the outpouring of grief over Jobs’ death temporarily causing outages. “I’ve literally never seen my whole entire stream talking about ONE thing before. Astonishing,” writer/ gamer Jane McGonigal tweeted. Apple fan boys and just fans gathered at Apple stores. Google memorialized Jobs on its homepage. Businessweek devoted an entire ad-free issue to him. A New York Times op-ed compared him to Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid, and Mayor Mike Bloomberg issued a statement in which he said Jobs will remembered in the same breath as Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Many admitted they cried when they heard the news.
But why? What has driven this outpouring of grief dedicated to a man most of these grievers never met? Some have taken a stab at it. The Economist proclaimed, “The melancholy over Steve Jobs’ passing is not just about the loss of the inventor of so many products we enjoy. It is also about the loss of someone who personified so many of the leadership traits we know are missing from our national politics.” Om Malik, founder of Gigaom, viewed Jobs as a personal hero/mentor all rolled into one: “I was too provincial to love the Beatles and cry over John Lennon. I was too Indian to care much about Elvis. And I read about President Kennedy in books. But for me, Steve Jobs was all of those people. I don’t know why, how and where that happened but Jobs was my icon.”
Christina Warren of Mashable ventured that “one of the reasons Jobs’s death has had such an impact on the online community at large is because of his public visibility. Jobs was a unique businessman in that he appeared frequently in front of the press, developers and the public at large to introduce new products and expound upon his vision for the future. Peter Scheer in the Huffington Post wrote that “Jobs’ Customers Bought Not Only His Products; They Bought His Personal Narrative”: “the college dropout who followed his dream from his parents’ garage to the top of the Fortune 500, all the while staying true to some inner compass wired to a uniquely California culture, prizing intuition, creativity, community and risk-taking.”

Meghan O’Rourke, in true New Yorker fashion, offered a more analytical framework, chalking it up to the idea of “public mourning,” which has “always been a crucial feature of civic life–it’s just that our form of it is more mediated than ever before. As the psychoanalyst Darian Leader points out in The New Black: Mourning, Melancholia, and Depression, collective mourning serves a purpose, allowing people to come together cathartically in their sense of loss, much as the soldiers in the Iliad mourn Patroclus with Achilles, regardless of how well they knew him. While such grief may seem voyeuristic or sentimental it expresses a sense of loss and recognition we have no other outlet for.” Meanwhile, the Christian Science Monitor posted an irony alert, pointing out that while the 99% Wall Street protesters boo CEOs they took the time to mourn Steve Jobs, a billionaire captain of industry and ubercapitalist.

With the exception of the CSM piece, all are beautiful sentiments, but they don’t adequately explain why the world mourns a single man. The answer, I believe, is as much technological as it is spiritual, with Jobs reaping the benefits of a halo-effect from the products his company created and his name became synonymous.
Taken together they contribute to the Tao of Steve Jobs–the title of Om Malik’s post of Jobs’ passing–that eternal principle of the universe that transcends reality and is the source of being, non-being, and change. Millions upon millions of people spend hours upon hours every day on them. You think Facebook has locked down our mind share? Not compared to Apple, which over the past decade has sold 300 million iPods and 16 billion songs from iTunes in eight years. In 48 months it has sold a quarter of a billion touch screen iPhones, iPads and iPod Touch devices. The installed software base for MacBook Pro laptops and iMac desktops is approximately 58 million. Taken another way: Hundreds of millions of Facebookers use Apple to get to Facebook.
That’s because Steve Jobs inserted himself into our lives like no one has before, which is why millions mourn while relatively few would give more than a passing thought to the CEO of, say, Ford or Dell or Exxon if he died, or if Warren Buffet suddenly weren’t here anymore. Apple owns the interface that we engage with every day, and because of the way it these products are designed many of us ascribe human values to it.

The iPhone isn’t just a phone; it’s our portal to each other. We use it to text, call, tweet, email, post to Facebook, surf the Web, watch a video, shop and play games alone and with each other, choose a restaurant based on online reviews of people we don’t even know. Woven into this is a physiological underpinning: Social networks engender trust, and the more time you spend on them the more trusting you become. Get on Twitter or Facebook and your levels of oxytocin, the cuddle hormone, spike. Oxytocin has been linked to all manner of human behavior, from empathy to generosity to trust. And when we believe that someone trusts us, we trust them back, and this, in turn, makes us more generous, more empathic. In short, a rise in oxytocin makes us better people, and what do we use to get there? For millions that magic carpet is an Apple device running Apple software.

Because of the magical way these products work–from their iconography to color scheme to each device’s shape–we project our own feelings on to them. We are like kids with a favorite stuffed animal until it is lost. Any parent knows trying to replace it won’t fly, because the stuffed toy has taken on a meaning far more important in the mind of child than mere fake fur, material, stitching and stuffing.


Perhaps Ron Rosenbaum, who wrote the 1971 Esquire article on phone phreaking and little blue boxes–a major influence on the young Steve Jobs–came closest to explaining it. Rosenbaum compared his old, beaten up Apple computer to the Velveteen Rabbit, which was “about a kid’s rabbit that gets all worn and lumpy and discarded and seems like he’s died… But then the rabbit is found again and we learn that ‘love is what keeps toys alive.'” He added, “For me, keeping the old model is not about the look, but about faithfulness and not wanting to discard something you’ve grown close to. The way you can learn to love a machine like a living being.”

In essence, we’ve been willingly brainwashed, happy victims to the reality distortion field that surrounded Steve Jobs and Apple, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Neurologically speaking, though, we’re hooked, and how many products in your life can you say that about? Apple’s famous slogan was “Think Different.” Really, though, it might have just as easily have been “Feel Different.”    
Hamilton Nolan concluded his Gawker post with “If you like Apple products, fine. They are products. They do not have souls. They are not heroes, and neither is their creator, no matter how skilled he may have been.”
Nolan is right, of course. Then again, he admits he’s never owned an iPhone, iPod, or Mac laptop. 

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at NYU and a contributing writer to Fast Company. Follow him on Twitter: @penenberg.
[Image: Flickr user rubenerd]

About the author

Adam L. Penenberg is a journalism professor at New York University and author of several books