“I have a great respect for incremental improvement, and I’ve done that sort of thing in my life, but I’ve always been attracted to the more revolutionary changes. I don’t know why. Because they’re harder. They’re much more stressful emotionally. And you usually go through a period where everybody tells you that you’ve completely failed” — Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs has been gone from this planet for a dozen years. Writing about his passing was one of the hardest tasks of my professional life as a writer — not because I knew him personally, but rather due to the realization that he was so unique and singular. It seemed unlikely that I would ever again experience the emergence and impact of someone like him. This morning, I went back to read what I had written then, and this particular passage stood out.
Some ask, will there be another Steve Jobs? Others wonder who will that be? Wrong question. For just like there will never be another Hemingway (who painted with words) or Picasso (who turned to canvas for poetry), there will be only Steve Jobs — an imperfect man on a quest for perfection that only he and his internal demons understood. And like many others (the crazy ones, as an Apple commercial once called them) before him, he will and should be remembered for what he stood for. Jobs showed us that conviction of a single person can transform the world of even inanimate objects such as computers by focusing on simplicity and happiness.
Over the years, like many others, I have looked for someone who might take up the mantle and become the spiritual leader of technology — someone to inspire hope, optimism, and change. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Tesla’s Elon Musk were names that were often mentioned as those who would become the face of our industry.
Yes, they have become just that — for all the wrong reasons. Even though the impact of technology is as pervasive as the air we breathe, our industry’s perception has shifted from “you tech guys are doing amazing things” to “you tech guys are going to destroy everything.”
Zuckerberg is a poor facsimile of a leader, who places advertising dollars and engagement above everything else. Bezos has joined the global playboy set. Musk was as close to Jobs as one could get — till he bought Twitter and somehow went from Captain America to Elliot Carver.
Jobs was as flawed as anyone else, if not more self-destructive than some of our modern leaders. His refusal to seek help early for his cancer cost him his life. His narcissism cost him relationships with those who loved him. He wasn’t a saint by any stretch of the imagination. In this social media age, he would have been burned at the stake — I am sure. However, what made Steve unique was his “conviction.” His long-term thinking was akin to the patience of a spider.
Today, we are living in a world that’s about taking short-term decisions: CEOs who pray to at the altar of the devil called quarterly earnings, companies that react to rivals, politicians who are only worried about the coming election cycle and leaders who are in for the near-term gain.
It was that conviction that gave him the gravitas to lead us through the personal computing revolution. He helped contextualize the importance of the desktop “personal computer” and then the mobile “personalized computer.” Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to shape the socio-economic impact of the Pandora’s box of “anytime, anywhere, everything” computing.
Back in 2015, I wrote about how mobile was ushering in the new “Victorian age.” Fast forward to today, and we have entered a whole new phase — one of the biggest transitions in how we have interacted with technology.
How I wish he were around to guide us through the next significant technological shift — the transition to the era of hyper-personalized computing, where human influence on interactions is minimal in a world awash with data, information, and uncertainty.
In these times of tectonic change, as societies suddenly accelerate beyond our human perception, we react with fear and apprehension about our future. The pre-industrial agrarian society had to contemplate that transition and reacted in a manner not too different from how we are reacting to the rapidity of change around us.
We need someone to contextualize this transition in a way that is less self-serving, less dystopian, filled with empathy, and most importantly — human. Today’s leaders are shallower than an inch-deep pool of self-interest. Some use words like baseball bats to beat on those less fortunate.
Steve knew how to make it all make sense. Back in 1985, Steve Jobs, in an interview, pointed out that “man’s ability as a tool maker to fashion a tool that can amplify an inherent ability that he has.” When talking about computers, he said:
And that’s exactly what we think we’re doing. We think we’re basically fashioning a 21st-century bicycle here, which can amplify an inherent intellectual ability that man has and really take care of a lot of drudgery to free people to do much more creative work.
Around that time, Steve told a group of students:
I can’t ask Aristotle a question. I mean, I can, but I won’t get an answer. My hope is that in our lifetimes, we can make a tool of a new kind, of an interactive kind.
And when I look at the personal computer, we’re, as you know, living in the wake of the last revolution, which was a new source of free energy. And that was the free energy of petrochemicals, right? And it completely transformed society and we’re products of this petrochemical revolution, which is we’re still living in the wake of today.
We are now entering another revolution of free energy. Macintosh, as you know, uses less power than a few of those light bulbs, and yet can save us a few hours a day or give us a whole new experience. And it’s free intellectual energy. It’s crude, very crude, but it’s getting more refined year after year after year, and in our lifetimes it should get very refined.
And so my hope is someday, when the next Aristotle is alive, we can capture the underlying world view of that Aristotle in a computer and someday some student will be able to not only read the words Aristotle wrote but ask Aristotle a question and get an answer and that’s that’s what I hope that we can do. So this is a beginning.
He had hoped that we would get there in twenty years. It has taken twice as long, and now we are knocking on the door of that future. Twelve years later, I still miss Steve. The day of his passing reminds me that, while we humans are flawed and broken, we still have a larger role to play in the universe. We must strive to make a tiny dent. We might not see it immediately, but the dots always connect.