We often lionize people after they die. While they live and breathe, even the most talented people can be taken for granted. Maybe we overcompensate after they are gone. That could explain why Steve Jobs has been given godlike status in the months since his death. While he lived, he was the tip of the spear of creative genius. And yet like anyone too far out front, he was also the target of competition. Now that he is gone, even his chief competitors feel permission to own to his greatness.
I have no trouble celebrating the man. I would be lost without my iPhone, literally. Before it came out, I was convinced I had “directional dyslexia.” Without the GPS/map feature in my pocket, the world’s largest ball of string or the location of today’s meeting was always just a U-turn away.
In one sense, Steve Jobs is the Columbus of the 21st century. He may not have actually discovered the world wide web, but he sure made it accessible. “I want to put a ding in the universe” he said. There are days when that kind of goal seems pretty compelling to me. Just to dream and do something so innovative and useful–and to see it changing the way we live, work and play–that would be deeply satisfying. At least for a while.
But now that Jobs is gone, people are growing more interested in what he believed about the universe on which he made his mark. They wonder about his final words, “Oh wow! Oh wow! Oh Wow!” according to his sister’s eulogy printed in the New York Times last week. Now that he is gone, people naturally consider what his work amounts to, the true legacy, no matter the size of the ding.
Whatever innovation comes next and how much things change, there are challenges and problems that stay the same, age to age. What can my pocket computer do to end conflict around the world or to ease my own selfishness? In the end, do these amazing discoveries make us more efficiently self-centered, distracted, and disconnected? It is not just ironic that in the communication age, people are feeling increasingly isolated.
According to his sister, what drove Steve was not the quest to make a better toaster, but to create something of beauty. Beauty drove him. So, perhaps after all the buzz and excess about this man has settled down, after the iPad is replaced by some even greater dream, we can still gain a lasting impression from Steve’s brief life of genius driven by the pursuit of beauty.
As C.S. Lewis comments in The Weight of Glory:
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
As much as I appreciate advancement and admire the pursuit of it, there is no innovation that can touch the longings that persist from generation to generation. Technology cannot reach the source of the world’s trouble and the cause of the world’s pain. For that matter, technology cannot explain the depths of human yearning, and the drive that produces innovation. When it comes to matters of the human heart, there is not an app for that.
If Jobs goes down in history as having been as inventive as say Edison, he will be among a very small number of individuals who have truly had a decisive impact on human history. For instance, how many U.S. presidents truly impacted the course of the country (for good or ill?)
Your comments about technology apply equally to all of science. There are questions of great importance to human existence that are beyond the scope of science, not being amenable to a laboratory study. Unfortunately, too many scientists choose to denigrate these questions and concerns because of this, which speaks to the limitations of science, not to the validity of the questions.