Monday, October 31, 2011

October 2011 Early Indications: Heroes

Watching the public reaction to the death of Steve Jobs has been a
fascinating exercise. The flowers, poems, tributes, and now biography
sales are certainly unprecedented in the infotech sector, and in
popular culture more generally. How many deaths have moved people this
way? Michael Jackson? Curt Cobain? Elvis? Each of these people was in
some way reaping the harvest of celebrity, and all were entertainers.
John Lennon might be the closest precedent to Jobs. Martin Luther
King was the last American martyr, but this phenomenon isn't in that

Jobs meant more to people than mere celebrity. Here is a random
tribute I pulled from an Irish blog:

"I never met Steve, but he meant a lot to anyone and everyone in the
technology community, and he was an idol of mine. The Apple chairman
and former CEO who made personal computers, smartphones, tablets, and
digital animation mass-market products passed away today. We're going
to miss him, deeply."

What led people to this kind of personal identification with "Steve"?
Perhaps it was the beauty of Apple products? But Jobs did not design
anything: he was instead a frequently tyrannical boss who extracted
the best from his underlings, albeit at a cost. Great -- really great
-- architects and industrial designers have come and gone, and even
today only Apple fanboys know of Jony Ive, who is our latter-day
Teague or Saarinen.

Does the prematurity of his death explain the extremity of the
reaction? Maybe partially.

Was it his philanthropy? No. Like many in Silicon Valley, Jobs was
not public about whatever charities he might have supported. There
was no Gates-like combination of focus and scale, no "think
differently" about his wealth's potential for the kind of social
change he admired as a young man, at least that we know of.

I think part of the fascination with Steve Jobs derived from his
extremes: throughout his adult life, Jobs had an extraordinary ability
to embody contradictions. The famous "reality distortion field"
surrounding the man from an early age meant that people suspended
disbelief in his presence, sometimes unwillingly. To take one example,
Apple never got hit with the same kind of "sweatshop" rhetoric that
was directed at Nike even though life in the Chinese assembly plants
was nasty, brutish, and often short: in 2010, 14 successful suicides
occurred, along with 4 other jumps. In response, a broad system of
nets was installed, and the management of the dorms improved, along
with other changes. It's worth noting that the factory suicide rate,
while alarming, is lower than in either urban or rural China more
generally: the outsourced manufacturer Foxconn employs a million
workers, nearly half of whom work in one facility in Shenzhen when
Apple products (along with others) are assembled.

There were other contradictions: think differently while telling
customers to conform to Apple's dictates of what constitutes fashion.
Build luxury goods while citing Buddhism. The image of artful
rebellion coexisting with a rigidly locked-down computing environment,
particularly for paid content.

None of these factors is a sufficient predictor of the Princess
Diana-like personal identification. Instead, the outpouring of
feeling speaks to several things, I believe.

1) Blogs, social media, Facebook pages, and YouTube make
self-expression to potential multitudes easy and accessible. These
tools, descended from the scruffy, anarchic origins of the public web
rather than the clean appliance-like aesthetic of Apple products,
allow for mass outpourings we would never have seen on public-access
cable or letters to the editor.

2) Jobs personified salvation from the stupidity millions of people
felt in the face of DOS prompts, device drivers, dongles, funny-shaped
plugs that never matched, and other arcana of computing. Used to
feeling inferior before a beige or gray box that would not do what we
wanted, people liked feeling more in control of the products that were
cute, friendly, and, after Jobs' death, now talk to us intelligently.

3) More broadly, perhaps, we have a shortage of heroes. Much like
Lennon, Jobs dared to imagine. As one commentator noted, envisioning
the future loosely connected Jobs to the saints and other religious
figures who truly had Visions. That connection does something to
explain the near-martyrdom that seemed to be shaping up in some
quarters. But even in purely secular terms, where are today's heroes?

Athletes? In part through the Internet and social media in
particular, we see these champions as sexual abusers, prima donnas, or
mercenaries whose multi-million dollar salaries remove them from the
pantheon. Super-sprinter Usain Bolt seems otherworldly, the product
of incredible gifts rather than perseverance and hard work to which
kids can relate. Pat Tillman, whose complex, troubling story will
probably never be fully told, is rapidly being relegated to footnote
status. Baseball is confronting the steroid era one Hall of Fame
candidate at a time, often awkwardly. Even worse than seeing athletes
as removed, perhaps, we also see them as human: Michael Phelps did
what millions of 20-somethings do after his successful transit of the
pressure-packed quest for gold in Beijing. Ignorant Tweets regularly
issue from the keyboards of the fast and gifted, ruling heroism
farther out of the picture.

Politicians? John McCain's story contains the elements of true
heroism, but he has the misfortune of living in a time of media-driven
political polarization, and his flavor of bipartisan citizenship is
out of fashion. Barack Obama did not inspire baby names in his honor
in 2009 the way John F. Kennedy seemed to, and he does not run for
re-election on a platform of traditionally Democratic accomplishments:
civil liberties, success in environmental protection, and a better
life for working person aren't looking promising. Instead, he can
claim foreign policy wins, usually Republican turf, particularly the
weakening of Al Qaeda. Among the Republicans, meanwhile, Mitt Romney
feels like a capable COO or maybe CEO, but falls far short of heroic
status, even within his party's faithful. More generally, public
approval with Congress is at historic lows.

What about business leaders? Only deep industry insiders know anything
about Ginni Rometty, recently named to run IBM. Meg Whitman joins
Rometty in an exclusive club of tech giant CEOs, but her California
political campaign (not to mention the titanic loss on eBay's Skype
deal) showed her to fall far short of heroic status. Outside of tech,
how many of these CEO names are familiar, or even close to iconic:
Frazier, Rosenfeld, Blankfein, Tillerson, Mulally, Iger, Pandit,
Oberhelman, or Roberts? (Their companies are, in order, Merck, Kraft,
Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil, Ford, Disney, Citi, Caterpillar, and
Comcast.) Warren Buffett may be the closest we get, but an object of
envy is not necessarily a hero.

Back to tech, the closest analogue I can think of to Steve Jobs in the
American imagination was Henry Ford, the person who made a liberating
new technology accessible to the masses. The great information
technology pioneers -- Shannon, Turing, von Neumann, Baran, Hopper --
are hardly widely known. Even our villains are scaled down: compared
to a Theodore Vail at AT&T or William Randolph Hearst, Larry Ellison
can hardly compare. As for Page, Brin, and Zuckerberg, they're mildly
famous for being rich, for certain, but so little is known about the
innards of Google and Facebook that the person on the street can't
really say for sure who they are or what they did -- or how their
companies make money. Facebook has become social oxygen, privacy
settings or no privacy settings, joining Google as a monopoly utility
(our analogues of AT&T) of the moment.

In the end, then, Steve Jobs was an elite, often inegalitarian figure
whose ability to bring forth usable, even likable technology inspired
the false familiarity of celebrity. His products -- running Photoshop
as well as they did, contributing to the ubiquity of wi-fi, or putting
multimedia in people's pockets -- fittingly contributed to the many
layers of paradox surrounding an extraordinary leader, manager, and,
yes, visionary. Apart from education reformer Sal Khan or perhaps
Ratan Tata (whose runway to global fame is getting short), it's hard
to see anyone on the horizon ready to occupy similar real estate in
the public imagination.