With Steve Jobs, we’ve lost the Gutenberg of our age.
He has shaped the surfaces and interfaces that in turn shape our expectations and habits vis a vis the medium that McLuhan just called the electric one: the networked computer on our lap and in our pocket. Judging by his impact on people’s everyday life experience, he might well be looked at as the most influential person in the last half century. If this goes too far, then only slightly. Yes, the Google boys have shaped our idea of how to deal with the Internet; yes, Bill Gates has created the business model that made “a computer on every desk” possible; yes, Gorbachev has turned a bipolar world into a single, money-focused global marketplace; and yes, Bin Laden has managed to throw the spread of enlightenment back for more than a decade single-handedly.
Still, if you imagine how now smartphones spread into the pockets of Chinese average consumers, into favelas and shantytowns, and into the hands of African villagers who don’t even have enough to eat; and how iPads are invading education, business frontends, news and entertainment – could anyone claim a bigger footprint on the Condition Humaine than he who brought us the touch interface, the concept of the app, and as his legacy, Siri, the voice-activated assistant?
When Walter Isaacson tells the story of how Jobs approached him to write his biography and he mocking asked whether he felt equal in stature to Benjamin Franklin and Einstein, the two people he had previously written bios about, maybe he was actually right. Personally I think that Jobs was nothing less than a historical figure, not just a genius CEO (his leadership lessons are worthless if not outright dangerous for 99.999% of CEOs) or a genius designer (he attracted genius designers by challenging them but he wasn’t one himself).
His being a historical figure also means that he is only partly responsible for his achievements. It implies that his talent occurred at the right time and in the right place. Many lines just happened to intersect where he was: like the failure of Microsoft to embrace the web on time and their inability to ‘sandbox’ their ideas in closed hardware-software-systems; like the inability of the music and movie industries to handle the digital condition, allowing Apple to leapfrog the nerdy early adopters and go straight into the mainstream.
That’s why I believe Steve Jobs will be remembered as the Gutenberg of our era … or maybe some Alexander the Great overthrowing fiefdom after fiefdom of the old analog world. Like Alexander’s, the empire of Jobs is now destined to be divided – which we should not bemoan but welcome as a sign of maturity of the new order.
The work of heroes and geniuses is completed by administrators. And that’s a good thing, after all.
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