Published October 05, 2011
“Steve Jobs gave the best performance by a CEO in 50 years, maybe 100 years.” That’s how Google’s Eric Schmidt assessed the career of Apple’s Steve Jobs, who died on Wednesday. Schmidt, of course, served as the CEO of Google as it became one of the great corporate success stories in American history. Yet history will agree with Schmidt’s assessment of Jobs. Not only did the Apple CEO create a company worth some $350 billion, he also changed the way Americans think about computers and, indeed, how they think about their lives.
To computer technology, known for its arcane complexity, he brought simplicity. To an industry known for its geeky/ugly functionality, he brought beauty. To a new generation of work-at-home-work-at-Starbucks creators and entrepreneurs, he brought a new kind of creative grace.
The U.S. economy is going through hard times now, but they would be even harder if not for Jobs’ vision of everyone being his or her own producer.
If a big part of economic activity and growth comes from the human desire to grow, develop and flourish, it’s Jobs who made that personal empowerment possible for millions; go to any Apple store and you will see people learning how to do things they didn’t know how to do, and then going forth to do them in their own way.
That’s the essential Jobs vision: We can all do this, and more--with a Mac.
And the consequence of that empowering vision was truly transformative. Some of us remember back to the famous “1984” advertisement for the new Macintosh computer, which ran just once on TV, during the 1984 Super Bowl. It ends with the words, “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you'll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” That is, the future world will not belong to centralized bureaucracies and their mainframes, but rather, it will belong to creative individuals and their personal computers, each free to do their own thing. That emancipatory vision has stuck in our imagination ever since.
Just three years ago, a Barack Obama campaign supporter used a brilliant parody of that ad to help the then-Illinois Senator defeat the Democratic favorite, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.
Indeed, President Obama joined in the mourning for Jobs, issuing a statement less than two hours after his passing: “Steve was among the greatest of American innovators--brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.” Yet while Obama deserves credit for taking note of Jobs’ passing, the comparison between Jobs’ legacy of changing the world and Obama’s ongoing effort at world-changing is not flattering to the President.
After all, Jobs truly did succeed: He was that rare combination, a visionary who could see something better in the future, but who could then get down into the nitty-gritty to push projects through to triumphant completion. Obama, of course, might have some sort of U.S.-meets-U.N. vision for America, but he lacks the leadership capacity to actually get something done. And so with Obama, we suffered through a series of forgettable programs--“stimulus,” “green jobs,” “cap and trade.” Whereas with Jobs, we will all remember, “iMac,” “iPod,” “iPhone,” and “iPad.”
As Intel’s Andrew Grove has observed, the high-tech world operates at a speed three times faster than the federal government. The reason is simple: The high-tech world fully embraces the vision of endless transformation, while bureaucratic government is inherently conservative and even reactionary.
And while savvy techsters are choosing among communications tools that include email, instant messaging, text messages, tweets and Facebook chats, the U.S. government, with Obama’s help, is still trying to prop up the Postal Service, the basic conception of which hasn’t changed much since Ben Franklin was appointed as the first Postmaster General back in 1775.
Entrepreneurs such as Jobs helped make Silicon Valley’s non-stop transformation possible. Not everyone wins in the Jobs/Silicon Valley vision of an endless tech frontier that puts a premium on endless adaptability. But the imperative for such personal adaptability comes from the competitive reality of the globalized economy.
But Jobs’ greatest impact was not economic. His true impact was on the culture and on the conception of self in the 20th and 21st centuries. He offered a vision that was many things: It was capitalist, but it was also arty-liberal. And yet it was even more libertarian. And above all, it was cool.
More than two centuries ago, the poet William Blake declared, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s . . . my business is to create.” That was Steve Jobs, who created a world that the rest of us can live in, long after his passing. It is we, the living and the creating, who are his true legacy.