On the media reaction to the death of Steve Jobs

The events of the past week generated powerful reactions inside of the Radar team.

Socrates said at his trial that “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” In days since the death of Steve Jobs, his life and legacy have been the subject of conversations around the globe, with thousands of articles, broadcasts, tweets and updates, with more to come this week in the pages of magazines whose publishers stopped the presses to put the co-founder of Apple on their covers. We’ve looked at his impact on commerce and legacy here at Radar, too.

In the context of worldwide reactions to his impact on the arc of history, recognizing the complexity of his life and offering a balanced assessment of the impact of his legacy on this earth matters. In that context, O’Reilly editors have been exchanging frank reflections over email on the passing of one of the technology industry’s iconic figures. While some of the comments shared are provocative, we thought it was an important conversation to share.

Mike Loukides initiated the thread: “I have to say that all those photos of people putting candles in front of Apple stores really creeps me out. I think hero worship is one of the most destructive things human culture has ever invented. He was a person. He had to die, sooner or later. It’s sad and unfortunate that it was sooner. But you don’t escape mortality by being able to hit a ball farther than someone else, or having better design sense than the next guy. And watching the devout go up humbly to the altar of the Apple store to leave their offerings–well, if that doesn’t say something about what’s wrong with this economy, I don’t know what does.”

Sarah Milstein responded: “Thanks for saying that, Mike. I respect people’s sadness, but at the risk of saying something unpopular, I’ve also been astonished and dismayed by the intense adulation.

I’m not big on hero worship to start with, and I find it particularly distressing in this situation, because his public work never seriously focused on identifying worthy public problems and inspiring people to tackle them. (You can argue that Apple’s products have enabled other people to do good work and that the company has created lots of jobs; but there’s still a meaningful distinction to be made between focusing on profits and focusing on social benefit. I mean, nobody says that oil companies are doing a lot of good work because their products allow aid workers to reach poor people around the globe.)

You can’t ask people not to have their feelings. But I’ve found Silicon Valley and the Internet quite alienating the past couple of days, and I appreciate a dissenting voice.”

Mark Frauenfelder offered a straightforward reflection about this moment in history and what we’re seeing in the reaction of millions around the globe to losing ‘the Crazy one‘: “A lot of people want heroes in their life, and some of them picked Steve Jobs as their personal protagonist. It beats worshipping Ayn Rand, in my opinion.”

By week’s end, we saw more evidence of a backlash about the coverage of Jobs’ passing emerge online. Mike and Sarah were not alone in their concerns nor perspective. Ryan Tate and Wade Roush explored the complexities of Jobs’ life and legacy for Gawker and Xconomy, respectively. While Tech Review editor Jason Pontin objected that “no one’s forgetting Steve’s dark side,” the preponderance of both mainstream and technology industry coverage has been strongly positive.

For my part, I participated in that coverage and publicly shared in the outpouring of personal stories over the course of Wednesday night. Late in the evening, I curated a collection of the more post powerful reflections, videos and quotes about Steve Jobs that I’d found. On Friday, I switched my personal blog to a “Retro Mac OS” theme that matches the look BoingBoing took on Wednesday night. In doing so, I don’t think I was guilty of hagiography or gross adulation. The tools he helped bring into being changed my life and continue to enrich it. Jobs told us “how to live before you die” in a 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University, that we should not “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.” He gave us inspiration to write our own melodies, to insist on seeing them made, whether that vision was wrought in gleaming glass and aluminum, drawn in artful pixels or published, echoing Gutenberg’s first revolution. Thinking back, my first computer was an Apple II+. In 1985, I wrote a story on it. In 1995, I made my first Web site on a Mac. In 2011, I share my world on an iPhone.

There’s much more to consider, however, and some of that story has been well told by one of my college classmates, Mike Daisey, who has produced an extraordinary one man show about Jobs that he’s been performing over the past year.

Daisey wrote an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times that engaged further with the complexities of Job’s life and legacy with characteristic eloquence:

Apple’s rise to power in our time directly paralleled the transformation of global manufacturing. As recently as 10 years ago Apple’s computers were assembled in the United States, but today they are built in southern China under appalling labor conditions. Apple, like the vast majority of the electronics industry, skirts labor laws by subcontracting all its manufacturing to companies like Foxconn, a firm made infamous for suicides at its plants, a worker dying after working a 34-hour shift, widespread beatings, and a willingness to do whatever it takes to meet high quotas set by tech companies like Apple.

I have traveled to southern China and interviewed workers employed in the production of electronics. I spoke with a man whose right hand was permanently curled into a claw from being smashed in a metal press at Foxconn, where he worked assembling Apple laptops and iPads. I showed him my iPad, and he gasped because he’d never seen one turned on. He stroked the screen and marveled at the icons sliding back and forth, the Apple attention to detail in every pixel. He told my translator, “It’s a kind of magic.”

Mr. Jobs’s magic has its costs. We can admire the design perfection and business acumen while acknowledging the truth: with Apple’s immense resources at his command he could have revolutionized the industry to make devices more humanely and more openly, and chose not to. If we view him unsparingly, without nostalgia, we would see a great man whose genius in design, showmanship and stewardship of the tech world will not be seen again in our lifetime. We would also see a man who in the end failed to “think different,” in the deepest way, about the human needs of both his users and his workers.

It’s a high bar, but Jobs always believed passionately in brutal honesty, and the truth is rarely kind. With his death, the serious work to do the things he has failed to do will fall to all of us: the rebels, the misfits, the crazy ones who think they can change the world.

Ken Jones remembered Daisey’s show well: “I saw his show on Steve Jobs last year in Portland OR and it was extremely moving. He blends his admiration for Jobs and Apple products with a journalistic account of his visit to the Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China, where these products are assembled under heartbreakingly deplorable conditions. You’ll never think the same way about your iPhone or iPad again.

Tim O’Reilly commented on the work of Steve Jobs when asked by the New York Times. “They were doing a ‘will we ever see his like again’ kind of story, and I had to say, ‘of course we will.'”

Specifically, Tim told the Times that “I don’t want to take anything away from the guy, he was brilliant and uncompromising and wonderful, but there’s a level of adulation that goes beyond what is merited. There will be revolutions and revolutionaries to come.”

Tim explained more via email: “I also posited the difference if, instead of dying at the top of his game, Jobs had died in 5 years, with, for instance, everyone saying ‘he did it again’ – did something world changing, but held it too tightly and was beaten by a commodity play just like with the original Apple II and Mac. I’ve also often wondered, if in some devolved future, people like Elvis and Princess Diana would end up as saints, with miracles attributed to them…”

Mike Loukides responded: “Two thoughts have been running through my head. One is that, after Princess Diana’s death, when everyone was gushing over her charity work, someone said “On the landscape of suffering, Diana was a tourist. Mother Theresa was a monument.” On the landscape of design, Jobs was certainly a monument, but we would do well to remember that there are other landscapes that are possibly more worth our attention.

Another was a couple of reports on other less wealthy people who died the same day: Reverend Fred L. Shuttlesworth led the NAACP in Alabama through the toughest years of the civil rights movement, another was Derek Bell, a law professor who quit Harvard until they tenured a black woman, and who was responsible for writing much of our anti-discrimination law.

And a third (bonus) is from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Towards the end, there’s a battle between the new gods (wealth, media, power, all that) and the old gods. Mr Wednesday/Wodin is the lead, but Czernobog, a very obscure Russian deity with some resemblance to Thor, plays an important role. Wednesday says something about Media, and Czernobog says “Media? I think I know her. She’s that Greek chick, right?” Elvis and Diana as saints, indeed.”

Sarah Milstein: “Of course, lots of news events could have eclipsed the deaths of Bell and Shuttlesworth. And debating relative worth is going to get us nowhere. But I have been sorry to see that them get relatively little airtime for having done heroic and inspiring things.”

For those unfamiliar, Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth was a civil rights pioneer who also passed away on Wednesday, at the age 89. He survived beatings and arrests to see Barack Obama be elected President of the United States. “All we’ve got to do is to keep marching,” he said. And they did. As a result, their children live in a country more closely aligned with the promise given at its founding that “all men are created equal.”

Derek Bell also passed away on Wednesday. The Harvard law school professor and civil rights activist, told students to ‘speak up, stand out.’ All three men will share a place on October 5th, 2011 in United States history books.

Sara Winge offered a coda to the conversation, sharing a reflection on science and art: “I think many people had intense reactions to Steve Jobs’ death because he was an artist. Most of us hunger for beauty. It nourishes us in a way nothing else does. He created beautiful things that were also practical and provided a lovely-to-use portal to an amazing new world of our own creativity. Now that he’s gone, his very precise, very personal aesthetic will never infuse an Apple creation again. That feels like a loss to me.

That reaction doesn’t have a thing to do with his business acumen, his personal abrasiveness, or his worth as a human relative to more saintly folks. It’s really about how his creative spirit inspired people, and how important (and emotional) that is to many of them.”

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