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Steve Jobs, secular prophet

by Robert Teitelman  |  Published October 10, 2011 at 3:05 PM
The passing of Steve Jobs continues to create a bull market in eulogies. What have we learned? Jobs was a truly brilliant packager of technology for consumers--not to say driven and design- and detail-oriented--but he was a visionary; in fact, he could actually see the future. No, like some Faustian figure, he was actually creating the future: he lived out there, which must have been disorienting. And like Faust, his mastery of product development and his untimely death suggested some pact he made with that old devil Mephistopheles for earthly powers (apple, Apple, bite). And, of course, because of that, he was a martyr for us.

Without Jobs, the nation would have not only fallen in despair during a decade when hope was extinguished (was it that bad?), but he offered, as Andy Crouch, in the weekend Wall Street Journal declared, the only hope that existed on this earth, well, maybe just in the United States. He was, in Crouch's immortal phrase, "a secular prophet," gesturing toward philosopher Charles Taylor's large and complex study "A Secular Age" from a few years ago. Crouch's piece was illustrated by what's become something of a genre, as Mark Vernon, a British blogger and former Church of England priest, notes tartly: "The media imagery of the late Steve Jobs carries the air of a saint. He's pictured against dark backgrounds as if he were from another place or time. He is shown in his characteristic black tops that look monastic, speaking of piety and commitment to purpose. Often a ray of light or a halo is framed around his head. He always was thin, like an ascetic."

I didn't know Jobs. My impression is that very few really did. He had, among many other talents, a marketing genius, both for himself and for his companies and products. Of course, it's easier to market, in his own phrase, "insanely great products," than, say, '70s Chevy Vegas. But he pulled his cloak tightly over his private life, which to me was one of his more attractive traits. That having been said, he had a family, he had his own personal devils (see the Wall Street Journal piece today on his biological father), and of course he suffered through a long illness. The point here is the startling revelation that he was not perfect. Not every product was a triumph; he "made a difference," but we won't know for some time what that really means; and he clearly left some personal travail and unhappiness in his wake. Besides, he had a wife and four children, to which the old cliché is irrefutably true: No one is a saint to their family. I wonder how they brought him thuddingly down to earth after a day as a demigod at work.

Then there's the Stanford speech. This speech has been played over so many times I could give it without notes. Crouch compares the speech, and Jobs, to Martin Luther King Jr., just before his assassination. That's sort of outrageous (Crouch also puts him in the same camp as Socrates, Buddha and Emerson; a co-worker sent me a reference that compared Jobs to Moses and Einstein; and comparisons to Edison are ubiquitous). In fact, except for the reality of his illness that gave the speech life, it was a pretty typical '60s message that was once standard fodder for graduations, Hollywood movies and pop songs: Chase your star, seek your dream, follow a different drummer, listen to your heart, live for the moment. Again, give Jobs credit: He was gutsy enough to offer that sort of gospel of cosmic entrepreneurdom while he was running a very large company that organizationally resembled a large bureaucracy. How many souls that worked for Jobs were just picking up a paycheck? Alas, Faustian sainthood and democracy don't really jive. As Robin Hanson, Will Wilkinson and Megan McArdle discussed last week, the message of Jobs' speech really only works if you have a great talent, as Jobs had. (This resembles the cult of Buffett: Most people should not try value investing like that other folk hero of business, the Sage of Omaha, unless you want to lose your shirt.) If your dream is to write "Moby Dick" and you can't do much more than a Tweet, then following your heart is a ticket to obscurity, poverty and depression.

I've been a little unfair to Crouch's essay on Jobs the secular prophet. It takes a while, but Crouch eventually gets around to wondering, like Vernon, whether so much an emphasis on the secular hope Jobs gave us was really a Faustian dead end. For all the wonder of the iPod, iPhone and iPad, Crouch says, we "still have to decide whether technology's promise is enough to take us to the promised land." Again, the biblical references. In Crouch's view, America for many years has been a wasteland devoid of hope. Jobs came as "the good news." (Now Jesus appears.) Maybe the polished magic of Apple and Jobs is just an empty promise. Maybe we need something more, well, metaphysical (though Crouch also declares limits on King's Christian vision). So where does that leave us, beyond the end of this essay and a desire to go cut the grass? "We will not see the likes of him again." True. Life is trouble, in every century. True. And we need hope. Yup. Maybe I'll try that Android.
- Robert Teitelman

Tags: A Secular Age | Andy Crouch | Apple Inc. | Charles Taylor | Faust | Mark Vernon | Megan McArdle | Robin Hanson | Steve Jobs | Will Wilkinson
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