07 October 2011

Steve Jobs Legacy: Everybody Loves a Rebel

As I did at the beginning of yesterday’s blog entry, I want to preface my thoughts on Steve Jobs’ death with some statements that I hope show that I do not see the subject I wish to discuss as straightforward. I neither hated nor liked Steve Jobs. I did not know him personally. I also know enough about him to know that he was more than the longtime CEO of Apple. He was a husband and a father. He practiced a form of buddhism, though the details on how he followed the tenants of Bhuddism remain sketchy until his authorized biography comes out (and for those of us who read it, we likely will not get the whole story even then). He also made statements to the effect that the products he came up with are not as revolutionary as people make them out to be.

I also think nobody should have to die the way Steve Jobs died. Regardless of what we think of the kind of man Steve Jobs was or wasn’t, he did not choose to develop pancreatic cancer and to suffer from it as he undoubtedly did suffer.

And I want to point out that, like many people my age, I own Apple products and have used Apple software. I have even contemplated jumping ship from the PC to the MacAir and probably would have already done so if I could afford one. So it is not like I am not participating in the kind of practices I wish to critique.

At the same time, however, I have to question how many people have reacted to Steve Jobs’ death. People who did know Steve Jobs and the media are consistently describing him as genius, a visionary, an innovator. They are saying that the world has lost someone great. There is absolutely no doubt that Steve Jobs did have a impact on the world. But he didn’t do that alone. And just as importantly as that fact, I think we need to take a closer look at what we think made this person so great. What, in other words, we think made Steve Jobs the admirable man that he is being remembered as.

To get at this particular brand of genius that we are being told Jobs was apparently endowed with (and which we are being told, implicitly, most of us lack), I want to take a look a blurb that has caught the attention of a great deal of people in the United States if not worlwide (I cannot speak to the latter). The words come from a speech Jobs gave at the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. They are the final words to that speech. They are ‘Stay hungry. Stay Foolish’. These are bold words, to be sure. They are defiant. They are rebellious. One journalist has said that those four words terrify him, because they are about taking big risks. I agree.

From what I know of him, and I have already admitted I don’t know a great deal, Steve Jobs spent his career playing the rebel. He was perhaps the first person to throw off the suit and tie persona of the corporate executive, opting for the black turtle neck that became his signature look and has now been emulated by CEOs when they are hawking their products at trade shows. In addition, he took a very hard line on the direction that he thought Apple should take early in his career that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. That stance that got him fired despite being one of Apple’s Co-Founders, though, after a few unsuccessful attempts in the computer industry (does anyone remember NEXT?), it ultimately rewarded him as one of the lead persons who helped turn Apple into the corporate juggernaut it is today. And, of course, Jobs’ rebellious attitude made him immensely wealthy.

What I think is terribly important to think about here is the kind of rebel Jobs was, because that’s the kind of rebel we apparently admire and wish to emulate, the way that we should approach life if we, too, want to be rebels. And Jobs tells us how he thinks we should approach life: foolishly and hungrily; to be bold and aggressive no matter what the consequences of that type of behavior might be.

We have been seeing what the consequences of behaving foolishly and hungrily have been in this country over the last four years (and much longer than that, in fact. This is simply the latest manifestation of wreckless behavior). Banks invested wrecklessly. Mortgage companies gave foolish loans to would‑be home owners (by which I mean these loans hurt the home owners). State governments have attempted to bust teacher’s unions. State governments have attempted to turn women into walking baby factories and criminals if they do not capitulate with that very narrow definition of their worth to society. Bullies have coerced LGBTs into contemplating and commiting suicide. People on death row have been executed despite that their guilt was in serious doubt. And what all of this wreckless and destructive behavior tells me is that, in many ways, our society rewards the kind of aggressively rebellious lifestyle that Steve Jobs advocates with those four words ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’ Not only does it reward that kind of behavior, in fact, as the bailouts of the American banking system indicate, but it also punishes those who conform or those who do not rebel destructively. In short, everybody loves a rebel, or at least the kind of destructive rebel that Steve jobs thought he was and which his words indicate that he hoped the graduating students at Stanford would all become.

I have been focusing on this particular brand of rebellion because I think there can be value in rebellion if approached in different terms than Steve Jobs casts them. This is what I would call productive rebellion. We have seen these kinds of rebellions recently in Iceland, Egypt, and the growing Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. I will also mention the protests in England, which I think are mostly productive but which have also been destructive. The same can be said of the rebellion of Algiers, though, to be clear, physical conflict seemed like the only recourse in that situation and in others like it. And, of course, the United States has a history of being rebellious. The country was born in rebellion. The fight to end slavery was born out of the rebellion of slaves. The civil rights movement was a rebellion against segragation and racism (as well as those things that the civil war did not resolve). Let’s not forget women’s suffrage either. All of these movements and movements like them tell me that we can admire rebellion, because we hopefully come to something better as a result of it. But there is a stark difference between destructive and productive rebellion as I see those terms. The productive rebel screams, ‘We are here! We will not be silenced! We are here even though that offends you!’ The destructive rebel, on the other hands, shouts, ‘I am here! I will take what I want even though that offends you!’

And I think that latter form of rebellion is the kind of legacy that Steve Jobs would bequeath us. The kind that emphasizes self-interest and self-gratification rather than emphasizing our right to exist and our ability to treat each other with fairness and kindness. It emphasizes the few instead of the many.

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