The death of Apple founder Steve Jobs has triggered an overwhelming display of public grief. It is apparent that Jobs may have been one of the last universally beloved figures in American popular culture.
There is certainly no denying Jobs’ brilliance as a marketer or an innovator, but the rush to glorify him seems excessive. Jobs made a fortune by creating pleasant looking gadgets that made modern life more convenient, but is that all it takes to be considered a great man in our society?
For all the design brilliance behind the Macintosh computer, it makes up only a miniscule 6.45% share of the personal computer market. It never resonated with the average American, who preferred the cheaper and more utilitarian Windows PCs. Most of Apple’s passionate fan base are located in the upper reaches of American society, as $9 out of $10 spent on computers costing more than $1,000 went to Apple.
Jobs’ real impact came in mobile technology, revolutionizing the field by tapping directly into the desires of the American consumer. The iPod allowed people to store their entire music collection in their pockets, the iPhone made it easy to connect to the internet on a mobile phone, and the iPad was an extremely user-friendly way to watch movies and play games.
His inventions made people’s lives more convenient, and he was rewarded handsomely for it. At his death, Jobs was believed to be worth around $7 billion.
He was a true titan of industry, but he was beloved because he carefully cultivated a counter-cultural image. He dropped out of college, founded his own company, and eschewed a suit and tie for jeans and a t-shirt.
Yet, for all his talk of “changing the world,” he was conspicuously absent when it came to charity. When he returned to Apple in 1997, he closed the company’s philanthropic division in order to return it to profitability. Yet, more than a decade later with the company sitting on $76 billion in cash reserves, its philanthropy unit remains shuttered.
Of course, he had no obligation to give away his money. He earned the right to do whatever he wants with it. But that hasn’t stopped his defenders from concocting elaborate justifications of his actions: “Jobs is probably the most charitable guy on the planet. Rather than focus on which mosquitoes to kill in Africa (Bill Gates is already doing that), Jobs has put his energy into massively improving quality of life with all of his inventions … Look at the entire Apple ecosystem and ask how many lives have benefited directly (because they’ve been hired) or indirectly (because they use products to improve their quality of life).”
The comparison with Gates is an interesting one. After amassing a personal fortune of his own, Gates has dedicated his life to charity, giving away an astonishing $28 billion dollars. Gates has invested massive sums of money into AIDS research, improving inner-city education, and sending underprivileged children to college.
Gates’ reputation as a hard-edged monopolist undoubtedly contributed to his desire to give away so much of his wealth, but the motivations behind his actions do not negate the kids he has sent through college or the medical discoveries he is funding. I have a hard time believing that Jobs’ ability to marginally improve the quality of life for the world’s richest people is somehow a nobler act.
Gates, a nerdy-looking guy who made the personal computer accessible and gave away a huge portion of his fortune, is a fairly well-regarded figure. Jobs, a charismatic figure who made mobile technology cool and never made any public effort to promote philanthropy, is well on his way to deification.
As a society, who we honor says a lot about us.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons