Why We’re Preoccupied with Steve Jobs–CORRECTED

Shrine for Jobs outside of Apple HQ. Photo by Norbert von der Groeben, Reuters

Steve Jobs’ death last Wednesday has spurred an astonishing outpouring of emotion. Beyond the countless makeshift memorials to him, a coming authorized biography of Jobs now sits atop Amazon’s best-seller list. More than 8,500 tributes to the Apple co-founder have been published by major media companies alone. Even the unsurprising details of Jobs’ death certificate became headline news when released to the public earlier this week.

Yet the question of why we’re so preoccupied with Jobs’ passing is as complicated as was Jobs himself.

Certainly, timing is a factor. At 56, Jobs died at the height of his powers, with his company now among the most valuable in the world.

“Like Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain, we’ll never see the Jobs who slowly succumbs to age, competition or obsolescence,” observes David Evans, a PhD and the founder of Psychster, a Seattle-based research firm that specializes in the psychology of social media. “We won’t see what we never want to see: the fall from grace.”

Evans says that another consideration is “social identity,” a process wherein people grow to identify themselves increasingly with a brand as it becomes more elevated. “It [goes] beyond brand loyalty,” he says. “For millions of people, what happens to Apple happens to them.”

Evans’s theory gets some support from some of the world’s top grief experts, who suggest that people have been projecting their own values on to Jobs. “[Grief] is yearning and longing for something loved and cherished and valued, something that enhances your sense of security and well-being, something that defines you,” says Holly Prigerson, director of the Center for Psycho-Oncology and Palliative Care Research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

“Steve Jobs, although not known personally to most of those who are mourning him, was all those things,” she says. “He enabled people to be social and connect to others and there is an irony and sorrow in that he is now permanently disconnected from us.”

“Almost everyone has a relative who has cancer and is caught up in the same stricken picture,” adds Mardi Horowitz, a psychiatrist at the University of California Medical School at San Francisco and another leader in the field of mourning research. “So they look to someone who’s gone through it to the end to see, was [the fight] bearable? Could Jobs face it and do all his work all the way to the end?”

While Horowitz admires that Jobs did “quite admirably,” in fact, he isn’t blind to the “modern myth” of Jobs. “I think the phenomenon [around Jobs’ death] is also due to a fictional enlargement, of Jobs as modern heroic figure. He was, of course, very good at telling a story that came across as very authentic, but it was a story.”

And at least one academic thinks it’s time to begin separating fact from fiction.

Steve Jobs shrine at Apple Store in Montreal. Photo by Christinne Muschi, Reuters
Steve Jobs shrine at Apple Store in Montreal. Photo by Christinne Muschi, Reuters

Fred Turner teaches in the communication department at Stanford University and several years ago authored From Counterculture to Cyberculture, a book that explores how countercultural ideals get appropriated by corporations. He doesn’t exactly share Prigerson’s widely shared interpretation of Jobs as someone who dreamed up “a future that he would want and [realized] his dream for the rest of us beneficiaries.”

Turner acknowledges Jobs was an “enormously effective entrepreneur.” But he says it’s just as important to “keep an eye on what else Jobs represents: the dream of the individually empowered countercultural revolutionary making good.”

It’s makes for a nice narrative, suggests Turner, but the reality is that in “making good,” Jobs was “making things that aren’t countercultural at all, unless you think that building new consumer devices and iterating on them rapidly is an act of rebellion.”

Indeed, says Turner, what many choose to ignore is that Jobs was a “ruthless capitalist” in the same vein as industrialists John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie — and Jobs did a lot less for his contemporaries.

“During his lifetime, Rockefeller gave us national parks. Carnegie gave us Carnegie Mellon.” In contrast, says Turner, Jobs, worth an estimated $6.5 billion, declined to discuss philanthropy, didn’t try solving any global health issues, never championed any particular cause, and abstained from participating in the “Giving Pledge” campaign of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet that asks billionaires to give away much of their wealth.

“Maybe people believe that making information technology is so important that other [efforts to benefit society] don’t matter,” adds Turner. “Maybe they think that building iPhones and Macs were themselves acts of public good.”

If they do, says Turner, they’re wrong.

*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Kurt Cobain’s name.*