This article originally ran in January 2011.
Steve Jobs's medical leave of absence is the top story in today's newspapers. The Wall Street Journal says his brief and poignant memo raises "uncertainty over his health and the future of the world's most valuable technology company." These two questions—Jobs's health and Apple's health—are the focus of almost all the coverage today.
But I'm interested in the health of our culture, and what will happen to it when (not if) Steve Jobs departs the stage for the last time.
As remarkable as Steve Jobs is in countless ways—as a designer, an innovator, a (ruthless and demanding) leader—his most singular quality has been his ability to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope. Nothing exemplifies that ability more than Apple's early logo, which slapped a rainbow on the very archetype of human fallenness and failure—the bitten fruit—and made it a sign of promise and progress.
In the 2000s, when much about the wider world was causing Americans intense anxiety, the one thing that got inarguably better, much better, was our personal technology. In October 2001, with the World Trade Center still smoldering and the Internet financial bubble burst, Apple introduced the iPod. In January 2010, in the depths of the Great Recession, the very month where unemployment breached 10 percent for the first time in a generation, Apple introduced the iPad.
Politically, militarily, economically, the decade was defined by disappointment after disappointment—and technologically, it was defined by a series of elegantly produced events in which Steve Jobs, commanding more attention and publicity each time, strode on stage with a miracle in his pocket.
Technological progress is the fruit of countless scientists, inventors, engineers, and firms. But Apple has done one thing almost no one else does: put the fruits of insanely complex engineering into accessible form. Before the rise of Apple, advances in computing technology largely meant a daunting increase in complexity and the length of the manual accompanying the device. The 1990s were the age of Microsoft, when geeks ruled the world … because we were the only ones who knew how to get it to work.
Apple made technology safe for cool people—and ordinary people. It made products that worked, beautifully, without fuss and with a great deal of style. They improved markedly, unmistakably, from one generation to the next—not just in a long list of features and ever-spiraling complexity (I'm looking at you, Microsoft Word), but in simplicity. Press the single button on the face of the iPad and, whether you are five or 95, you can begin using it with almost no instruction. It has no manual. No geeks required.
Steve Jobs was the evangelist of this particular kind of progress—and he was the perfect evangelist because he had no competing source of hope. In his celebrated Stanford commencement address (which is itself an elegant, excellent model of the genre), he spoke frankly about his initial cancer diagnosis in 2003. It's worth pondering what Jobs did, and didn't, say:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It's life's change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now, the new is you. But someday, not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it's quite true. Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.