Steve Jobs: A Cure for Restless Hearts?
The widespread commentary on what Steve Jobs meant to the world following his death last month was as astonishing as it was vapid. And with all due respect to those who mourned at Apple stores, leaving flowers, candles and photos in makeshift shrines, the whole phenomenon seems to indicate little more than that too many Americans are in need of some real meaning in their lives.
At one level, of course, this was simply celebrity at work. Jobs was a celebrity of sorts, and the whole world of fandom is self-evidently ridiculous, whether devoted to a particular “star” or to a sports team. It is true that, ridiculous or not, most of us experience it at times. But when we find on a star’s passing (or a team’s) that there is suddenly an unfilled hole in our lives, it is time to take spiritual inventory. Who, after all, are our heroes, and why?
Jobs clearly possessed an ability to market and connect people with product ideas mostly developed by others (usually in other companies). He seemed to have a genius for combining style and utility in computerized tools so that large numbers of users thought they were “cool”. But we need to remember that we’re talking primarily about gadgets here. Again, when we are in danger of defining ourselves as the sum total of our gadgets—or when our highs in life come primarily through our gadgets—we’re typically in deep spiritual trouble.
There is a kind of secular mysticism to all this. Apple was the first company to call its product spokesmen “evangelists”. Never mind that Steve Jobs was a ruthless CEO, often bullying and demeaning his subordinates, manufacturing Apple products in sweatshops in China (complete with under-age labor), and having no use whatsoever for charity, despite being personally worth some eight billion dollars. In spite of this, devotion to Apple products somehow became almost a kind of religion. The company inspired a conviction that its products were substantially superior (which has never been particularly true by any measure other than fan devotion), and that Jobs and his toys somehow made life worth living.
The Week for October 21st quotes Ross Douthat writing in the New York Times that Jobs understood better than anyone the “deep connection between beauty and civilization”, and he helped ensure that “the age of information would also be an age of artistry.” Oh, please: I don’t think Steve Jobs ever offered significant evidence that he even knew what civilization was, or what it ought to be. He could market snazzy stuff. Does this give him depth?
Perhaps Andy Crouch was on to something when, writing in the Wall Street Journal, he suggested that Jobs captured in all Apple products a “perfectly secular form of hope”—hope that “ordinary and mortal life can be elegant and meaningful”, and hope that whatever we want to fulfill our lives at each moment will be available with the swipe of a fingertip. Crouch thought it fitting that Jobs created the apple logo, “the very archetype of fallenness and failure, the bitten fruit”, and turned it into “a sign of promise and progress.”
Perhaps, then, the most accurate comment we can make about Steve Jobs is that he was a master at postponing the angst of restless hearts. Fair enough: We all suffer from restless hearts, and it is true that biting the proverbial apple can be an important step toward understanding that the only real solution is to rest in God. But that knowledge is not built into Apple products. If you know it, you didn’t learn it from Steve.
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Posted by: -
Nov. 05, 2011 3:26 PM ET USA
Ever hear of De mortuis nil nisi bonum? In three weeks time, there will be little news of Mr. Jobs.
Posted by: mwean7331 -
Nov. 04, 2011 9:29 PM ET USA
I'm with you all the way Jeff. I was amazed when the world seemd to be putting this man up for sainthood. Never mind he created ineresting technology. Isn't a man's life viewed according to his personal traits and regard for his fellow man? But then God is final judge of us all.
Posted by: rdubin1661 -
Nov. 03, 2011 1:50 PM ET USA
Excellent piece, as always. The only comment with which I disagree is, "The company inspired a conviction that its products were substantially superior (which has never been particularly true by any measure other than fan devotion)..." The fact is, Apple products actually are superior -- in design elegance, in functionality, and in the seamless way hardware and software interact. Just ask anyone who has come over from Windows. Other than that, Jeff, as usual your comments are spot on.
Posted by: AgnesDay -
Nov. 03, 2011 1:33 PM ET USA
Does anyone else wonder why he exclaimed, "oh, wow! oh, wow! oh, wow!" as his last words? Some of his last writing indicated that he could see the emptiness of his life as it neared its end. May God have mercy on him and on all of us.
Posted by: koinonia -
Nov. 03, 2011 8:00 AM ET USA
It would be interesting to know how his last days went and if he had any epiphanies during that time. I do know that one report I saw stated that despite numerous attempts by friends to visit him near the end, he declined, stating he wished to enjoy the time with his family privately. While today's technological gizmos and gadgets have made our lives much easier in many ways, they also introduced greater obstacles to a goal-oriented disposition with regard to our ultimate goals in life.
Posted by: -
Nov. 03, 2011 1:03 AM ET USA
Your spiritual assessment of Jobs and his character as ruthless and bullying is on target, but you are off-base that he merely could "market snazzy stuff". My software development career began on the Mac platform before moving to an Intel/MS tools platform. It was like stepping back into the stone-age. It was years before MS caught up. Jobs brought a vision of elegance and design that was lacking in the industry. MS, too, buys technology and is more a marketing firm than a software company.
Posted by: timothy.op -
Nov. 02, 2011 9:35 PM ET USA
Well said! Without denying that technology in itself is morally neutral and can even be well used for spiritual gain (e.g., CatholicCulture.org!), it was clear when the ipod became ubiquitous: SATAN HAD NOW MANAGED TO BANISH SILENCE FROM THE LAST AREAS OF LIFE WHERE PREVIOUSLY THE CACOPHONY OF POP CULTURE WAS UNABLE TO REACH. There is now no activity which one can't pervade with the diversion of secular noise, effectively confirming one's refusal to listen to the still, quiet voice of God.
Posted by: -
Nov. 02, 2011 5:20 PM ET USA
You sound like a bitter Microsoft or Google fan. Some of your accusations are baseless or at the very least extremely exaggerated, especially in regard to Apple not creating their own ideas. It is the other companies that have time and again stolen apples ideas. While I don't believe Jobs should be elevated to be a God or a saint, I think he was among the most creative and intelligent business leaders of our century, and the world has lost a truly great thinker.
Posted by: Niklas -
Nov. 02, 2011 4:57 PM ET USA
Very sharp analysis! Thank you.