Monday, 31 October 2011


Though it's been three weeks since Steve Jobs shuffled off this mortal coil, discussion of his life and lifestyle rages on, partly thanks to the release of his biography, subsequent reviews and curious Taiwanese video renditions of its content. I'll declare upfront that I am neither a Apple fan nor user. I don't own any iProducts and never have. Though I find something like the iPhone quite simple to use, it takes about 60 to 90 seconds for me to go totally bonkers when using a Mac. Maybe my mind isn't letting go of Windows or UNIX paradigms, but OS X drives me mad. I find it genuinely bizarre how many astronomers use Macs.

The outpourings of sorrow, the likes of which were probably last seen when Pope John Paul II perished, weren't surprising, given what iCustomers are like. After all, brand loyalty has been compared to religion. Even so, I was disappointed at just how far the dramatic eulogizing penetrated. Even Nature weighed in with praise for Jobs. Fortunately, other sources were more nuanced. I stumbled upon a column in the Cambridge University newspaper that is my choice for the best analysis of the whole story.

The deification of Mr Jobs is, in homage to his own mantra, a simple, elegant, unconscious misdirection of our love of stuff. We cannot admit to ourselves the level to which our obsession with stuff has grown, for it would mean admitting the worship of icons for their own sake. Instead, we have placed Steve Jobs on a pedestal. It was not the technology we love – perish the thought. It was Steve. We love Steve for he was our prophet. But we worship his God at our peril.

Whenever an issue polarizes opinion, I normally find the truth languishing somewhere in the middle, where no-ones seems to dare tread. Steve Jobs did make some contribution, at least to the rich world. In short, he brought advanced technology to the masses, often in ways that other manufacturers hadn't managed. The iPhone charged in with a large-form touchscreen where other manufacturers hadn't managed to succeed and I'm left to concede how much my HTC Wildfire looks like Jobs' brainchild. You can arguably shoot a feature film from an iPhone. Or you could just send it into space. So he gets full credit for turning Apple into a consistent innovator.

But how much praise is warranted? Should we hail Steve for supplying our newfangled gadgetry? While iProducts may be pioneering a "post-PC" era, producing them has been highly profitable. Steve Jobs may have been driven, but I don't think he was driven to change the world as much as to make money. He certainly did the latter; I'm unconvinced about the former. The fact that we're ultimately venerating a master salesman is a worrying sign of the West has come to value.

Jobs' death occurred around the same time as one Dennis Ritchie. Ritchie has a few claims to fame but he is credited with the creation of the C programming language. That is something that has defined the digital world. More or less everything is written in C, a derivative, or a language for which the compilers are written in C. Including most of the software that Apple uses to run its hegemony. Ritchie's death hasn't gone unnoticed but it may have appeared in the mainstream only because the geeks of the world understood his importance (and/or shunned Jobs'). The Economist ran an obituary but probably only because of a letter inciting them to do so.

Steve Jobs' passing is certainly cause for a moment's pause. Not just as for  any untimely death, or for his early contributions to personal computing, but also for a thought on what it is that really matters to each of us.