Steve Jobs, Willy Wonka, and You…

07 Oct

When Steve Jobs died on October 5, there was a flood of condolesences online. “Online” here generally defined as Facebook and Twitter. According to the people Twitter hires to measure such things, its users commented on the Apple co-founder and former CEO’s death at a rate of 6,049 tweets per second. That’s more that the Twitter-verse cared about the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden (around 5,000 tweets per second) but significantly less than the comments on Beyonce Knowles’s pregnancy during the MTV Video Music Awards (8,868).

It’s hard to imagine any other CEO’s passing receiving such attention. Warren Buffett might but only if you factored in the people on Facebook and Twitter who confused him with the “Margaritaville” singer.

Jobs was practically as popular as Barack Obama once was and even the president’s fame took a nosedive when he actually became the country’s chief executive. However, the iPad was arguably a more successful product launch than health care reform.

It would probably not offend Jobs to state that he himself was a product, perhaps Apple’s most effective. In his death, he’s been repackaged as a “visionary” and “innovator,” which are nice ways of saying he was more than just an extremely competent businessman. After all, the executives we don’t like wear suits not turtlenecks and jeans. It’s safe to assume the protestors at “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrations took time to mourn Jobs.

Maryann Johanson of Flick Filosopher stated how hearing Jobs say in the unaired 1997 “Crazy Ones” commercial that “the people who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do” makes her cry now. That’s quite an impact. And the morning of his death, my Facebook feed was filled with inspirational quotes from Jobs. He was not merely a guy who made a hell of a lot of money (reported net worth of 8.3 billion). He was one of the “crazy ones.” Keep in mind that the commercials featured artists (John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Maria Callas, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, and Jim Henson), trailblazers (Muhammad Ali, Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, Jr), and true geniuses (Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison). The only businessmen featured were Richard Branson and Ted Turner — the latter perhaps because they wanted to include at least one figure who was not just metaphorically “crazy.”

Upon reflection, this commercial makes me want to cry, as well, but for different reasons. It’s all rather cynical name dropping for a commercial whose ultimate aim to get you to buy something that most likely would not figure prominently in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Did Jobs really “change the world”? Everyone seems to think so, including President Obama, who said that Jobs “was among the greatest of American innovators – brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it.”

It would deny logic to claim Jobs did not alter our society, but this did not occur on a philanthropic level. According to Fortune, Jobs had “had terminated all of Apple’s long-standing corporate philanthropy programs within weeks after returning to Apple in 1997, citing the need to cut costs until profitability rebounded. But the programs have never been restored.” No, Jobs’s true legacy would be what Bud Tribble at Apple referred to as his “Reality Distortion Field” or what I consider his ability to crank up the public’s conspicuous consumption volume to 11. (The RDF might also explain why Jobs’s replacement Tim Cook came off during his first product launch like Doug Henning to his David Copperfield.)

Middle school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron wrote on the Huffington Post that she told her students that Job’s death was as if “Willy Wonka has died.” I consider this a not-unreasonable comparison: Wonka was not a farmer who used his factory to revolutionize means of feeding the population. He sold junk food to children and later punished a select few of them for demonstrating the very same gluttony that made him a wealthy man.

We buy a new phone every year. When I was a kid, there was one phone in the house and it was only replaced when it broke — not when Wonka showed up with a new, cooler one a few months later.

The question was posed recently as to whether the U.S., which barely has two nickels to rub together, can afford to provide aid to Somalia — a country that  ranks low on iPod penetration but high on famine penetration. It’s an astounding cognitive dissonance that anyone would ask that question during a time when Apple has revenue approaching $10 billion (although, apparently the company was not profitable enough for Jobs to resume its philanthropy programs).

But no one knows who Bob McDonald is and no one cares about the “hot, new” toothpaste, even if it might help prevent gingivitis. We all want to be able to make a phone call while posting to Facebook that we’re making a phone call while posting to Facebook.


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