Maybe it’s because someone I actually knew and cared about died around the same time, but there’s something very troubling to me in much of the oupouring over Steven Jobs’s death. Not that it isn’t sad–I’m sure it’s a devastating loss to his family, friends, and Apple share-holders. But my relationship to Jobs was as a consumer, and as a consumer I had a lot of the same issues with him that I do with any other Captain of Industry who keeps prices high by ruthlessly policing his intellectual property, builds planned obsolescence into his products, and maximizes profits by offshoring as much overhead as he can. Yes, Apple’s design sense is really elegant and all, but, snob that I am, I get more excited about l’art pour l’art than l’art pour la branding. And those Mac Guy versus PC Guy commercials really got on my nerves.
Yesterday the New York Times leaked items from Isaacson’s book, about how Jobs, after initially delaying surgery for his pancreatic cancer, made himself an expert on the disease, “sparing no expense, pushing the frontiers of new treatments….studying, guiding and deciding on each treatment. Mr. Isaacson said Mr. Jobs made the final decision on each new treatment regimen.”
Then the Huffington Post described Jobs’s disdain for Bill Gates, who, Jobs said, “is basically unimaginative and has never invented anything, which is why I think he’s more comfortable now in philanthropy than technology. He just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”
There’s a pretty crushing irony in the juxtaposition. At the same time that Jobs was teaching himself how to save himself from cancer, Gates was building a foundation that seeks to improve health and alleviate poverty for people all over the world–a symptom, in Jobs’s jaundiced view, of Gates’s fundamental shallowness. Maybe I wouldn’t mind so much if I hadn’t had to listen to everyone telling me how saintly and visionary and inspired Jobs was for the last few weeks–and how he represents America’s best hope (“we don’t need a jobs program, we need a Steve Jobs program,” Eric Cantor would have told the Wharton School yesterday, if he hadn’t cancelled for fear of Occupy Wall Street hecklers).
Not to pile on, but then there’s this, from an AP story about Isaacson’s book:
Isaacson wrote that Jobs was livid in January 2010 when HTC introduced an Android phone that boasted many of the popular features of the iPhone. Apple sued, and Jobs told Isaacson in an expletive-laced rant that Google’s actions amounted to “grand theft.”
“I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple’s $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong,” Jobs said. “I’m going to destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product. I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this.”
Compare that to Bill Gates, quoted in this old Fortune magazine story: “When I looked into it, it surprised me to see such a systematic failure in world health programs…. Those lives were being treated as if they weren’t valuable,” he says. “Well, when you have the resources that could make a very big impact, you can’t just say to yourself, ‘Okay, when I’m 60, I’ll get around to that. Stand by.'”
I don’t want to speak ill of the dead, really. But I don’t want to draw false lessons from a billionaire’s demise either. Jobs’s greatness was as a capitalist–he built companies and he leaves behind a company as a monument to himself–a company that stamps out pricey, high-status consumer products.
He didn’t teach us how to live; he showed us one way to make money. That’s a marvelous thing, but it’s not the only thing.