Perhaps none of my friends share my appreciation for Edwin Howard Armstrong, who made most of the major radio inventions of the 20th century possible, but his work is unquestionably significant in modern life. If you are using anything that arrives via radio waves, you are indebted to Armstrong. When I look around, I see his shadow everywhere.
These days, the shadows being cast may be more numerous, but few are as long. Armstrong and his contemporary, Henry Ford cast particularly long ones. One gave us cheap mobility and the other, reliable communications. They helped us move beyond being a nation of immobile, isolated farmers.
Now, as we morph into emergent cyborgs, merging our technology and biology, I believe we have Jobs to thank for the tether making a big piece of it possible. His work will eventually be recognized as in the same league.
Oddly, a few of his obituaries try and minimize his contributions with unfavorable comparisons to past industrial or social giants. They sidestep the fact that innovation always occurs on a plateau in the present. How we got to the current plateau is irrelevant. His novelty as an innovator and tech leader strikingly sticks out above his cohort. Where others saw steel, he saw the railroad, Pullman cars, automated ticket vending, and coal mining. Then he saw interstates, airports, space travel and bilocation.
Sometimes, I fantasize about being able to sit with my late wife, Jayne, who died in 1998, and in a few minutes, explain to her what an iPhone can do. She would be right to be skeptical. Pocket-sized bi-directional sound and image, high definition video, remote lookup of UPC codes, comprehensive financial transactions, clocks, calendars, mail, manuals, contacts, intuitive ergonomics, accelerometers, GPS/location awareness, maps, memory, computational amplification, multi-mode wireless connections, supporting software, cloud/amorphous storage, persistent connection, intuitive interface, crowd-based platform enhancements (apps), revised economic systems (telecom, music, reading/spoken word)… Jayne died when almost none of this existed in its current form, and had she died only 5 years ago, that would mostly still be true. Jobs’ impact on modern society is enormous, scintillating, and I suspect generally under-appreciated for its magnitude and significance.
When it comes to technology, I am mostly cold hearted, and some of my sadness at his death has origins elsewhere. Part arises from yet another clang of that persistent, muted, tolling bell reminding me again of our common mortality. Fifty-six is too damned young to go. Money and will aside; death has its schedule and asks no permission. In that regard, we’re all on Jobs’ bus route, and just a few more stops down.
No, I think most of my sadness comes from seeing the departure of a rather young man who was imaginative, passionate and driven, right until the end, and whose passion and drive proved impotent once death had him marked for harvest. I don't want that to be true and hate being reminded that the universe doesn’t really care what I want.
Passion and drive often compete with patience and kindness, and they might explain his reputation for being difficult. Difficult or not, the 1992 Apple Color Classic displayed in my hallway STILL looks like a piece of art, and I cannot find anything about it meriting a complaint. Overlook its tech specs and recall that it competed with sheet metal clunkers running Windows 3.1 or DOS. They are as different as a lawnmower is to a Mercedes.
Such jewels originate in the mind and spirit of a visionary; fanatics like Constantin Brancusi. Nothing by accident, only by intent. Every particle.
If Steve Jobs had an operating manual, Brancusi’s quote: "Work like a slave; command like a king; create like a god." would be a good dedication.
Like Brancusi, Job’s compelling story is not some vague innate superiority, but rather his utter commonness. Neither of these fellows accepted the limits society tried to hand them. Rather than overcome limits, they just wisely ignored them.
No college degree, no impressive family pedigree, no overwhelming intellect, Jobs pursued applying and shaping technology to the ends society demands, often helping society figure it out. He was a one-man container for our collective missing imaginations. With only a few modest failures sprinkled among several gargantuan successes, he is a poster boy for what we can accomplish if we rely on ourselves instead of our purchased symbols of supposed competence. His life is an example of work beating wallpaper in the real world. How many Harvard MBAs smugly count beans at minor little offices at Apple? I’m betting several. However, if one of those goes missing, no one really notices, do they? I’m not denigrating education by saying this, but I do intend to denigrate the attitudes that it stops at graduation or that it starts on college entrance and that it alone is a path to greatness or that Dartmouth beats Western Carolina in the grand picture. What really matters is drive and that arrives WITH the student, it is not conferred by dusty professors.
Jobs’ 2004 Stanford commencement speech features a common man telling stories about a common life, somewhat uncomfortably reading off typed pages for the most part. He may have been much more focused than the rest of us but his pants still went on one leg at a time. We’re all made of the same stuff.
Of course, he wasn’t perfect. Perfection is an ideal and an asymptote. But his accomplishments weren’t some piece of random luck of time and place, like being born into money. Luck might play a part in one success, but not a string of them as long as his. To call him lucky insults the intensity, dedication, focus, risk, hard work, sacrifice, originality, creativity, persistence, sweat and the man’s quest for perfection in his work. This man was not lucky at all; he was intentional. Intentionally great.
So if I could carve his epitaph in stone, it might be “The same imagination that invents the limits of your life can invent the means to overcome them.”
If you think the walls trap you, just invent some ladders. Or a catapault. Or a rocket. Or a drill. A limit just marks the point where you decide to quit.
For that lesson, alone, I am most grateful to Steve Jobs.