"In lapidary inscriptions," said Dr. Johnson, "a man is not under oath." Still, I have been a little startled by the Princess Diana-style reaction to the death of Steve Jobs. The Internet has been weighted down with lachrymose tributes; even the mainstream press is given over to extended compliments. Bouquets of flowers have been deposited at the entrance to Apple stores, accompanied by heartfelt handwritten notes to the deceased.
All this has made me feel a bit like the village atheist. Of course, I should say that I was sorry to learn that Jobs had died, at the premature age of 56, leaving a grieving widow and children; but it has been difficult to comprehend the emotional character of the mourning. Jobs was a highly successful business entrepreneur whose products were very popular with customers. But was his an original mind? Did he change the world? Was his life and work equal to the near-religious fervor which has greeted his death?
I am not so certain. There seems to be some confusion between Jobs's commercial achievements, which were considerable, and their wider cultural significance, which is less obvious. To be sure, I say this as one who has adapted to technology, but finds no intrinsic interest in it, and looks forward to the balance of a lifetime devoid of Jobs's inventions. It is true that this is being composed on an Apple computer; but that is the choice of my employer, not me, and I could just as easily be writing on another brand of machinery. I do not own an iPhone or iPad, and do not expect to do so. Moreover, in the broader realm of technology, I would argue that, say, Philo T. Farnsworth (d. 1971), who perfected the modern invention of television, or Henry Ford (d. 1947), who mass-produced the automobile, had considerably more profound effects on American life than Steve Jobs. But were flowers left at the door of Ford dealers when the old man died? Certainly not.
I am further mystified by the fact that, by all evidence, Jobs was not an especially admirable human being. I have never quite recovered from reading, 30 years ago, about his strenuous efforts to deny the paternity of his out-of-wedlock daughter, whose mother was then required to seek modest court-ordered child support payments -- from a man whose estate is estimated to be $6.5 billion. Stories of Jobs's abusive treatment of underlings are similarly off-putting -- although they were symptomatic of perfectionist tendencies, we are told. This might be excusable if the fruit of Jobs's labor had been King Lear or the Ninth Symphony; but the iPhone?
Jobs, so far as I can tell, was a masterful designer and marketer of commercial products, one of which was Jobs himself. So the only way I can explain the fervor surrounding Jobs is by observing the cult that Jobs generated: The decrees of principle, portentously laid out in television commercials; the self-consciously hip, casual appearance and manner; the cathedral setting, with dramatic lighting, in which the good news of the Macintosh or iPad was proclaimed to the world.
It does take a genius of sorts to make technology adaptable to a mass market, and to persuade consumers they need to consume. But that is not quite the same as "changing the world." It is one thing to influence human behavior -- which might be said of figures as disparate as Sigmund Freud or Jesus -- but quite another to understand human behavior, and profit handsomely.