Will We See Another Steve Jobs?

Rich Jaroslovsky’s assessment that Steve Jobs is another Edison or Ford is right:

Lacking information about Jobs’s latest illness, questions have focused on what his absence will mean for Apple. How deep is the management team that will run things while he’s on medical leave? What will the impact be on a stock price that’s made Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world? Are enough cool new things in the pipeline to sustain the company’s spectacular financial performance?

While those are all valid issues, they miss a larger point: Love him or loathe him, Jobs is a figure of social and historic significance who has arguably had as much impact on the daily lives of global consumers as anyone you can name.

In an odd way, Apple’s recent spectacular success, combined with Jobs’s larger-than-life image and lightning-rod personality, have obscured just how important a force he has really been, and for how long. After all, an Inc. magazine cover proclaimed that “This Man Has Changed Business Forever” — in 1981.

Since I’m sitting here writing this on my MacBookPro and the iPhone is right next to me, I don’t need to be convinced of the impact of Jobs and Apple.  I’m also a testament to the staying power of his idea, too: I was sold on the whole Mac thing when given one of the worst “Road Apples” that the company ever produced, one that came out during Jobs’ absence.  A machine as architecturally challenged as that one was still so easy to use and could record and play television out of the box, and both were more than virtually any mid-1990’s PC could hope for.

For Apple, the issue isn’t whether Jobs’ creativity and vision can be sustained, but for how long.  That’s always the way it is with corporations.

But that in turn brings me to what I think is the more pressing question: will this country continue to produce people like Edison, Ford or Jobs?  (Edison is, in some ways, the odd man out in this triumvirate, as Ford and Jobs not only were creative but also connected with people and their needs and wants in a superb way.)  I have my doubts, not that we cannot produce people like this, but whether we will continue to give them the welcoming environment to sustain them.

In reading Job’s bio, I’ve always been struck by the fact that he was, in his early years, a wanderer, both physically and educationally, up and down the West Coast and across the Pacific.  He never actually finished college.  All of this is not atypical of his (or my) generation.  It’s especially typical of what was then known as “high tech.”  The fact that many of Jobs’ contemporaries still struggle with the technology is a testament of how far ahead people like Jobs and, yes, Bill Gates (a Harvard dropout) were of the society at large.  The conceptual leap that one gets with a computer is something that is commonplace today but, at the time, was truly a leap, especially with the limited computing power that was staring us in the face.

Today we have a society that is on its way to becoming a mandarinate.  Obsessed with educational credentials, raised by a generation of parents whose micromanagement skills are the stuff of legend, and risk averse, we live in a society where everyone talks about opportunity and yet our income distribution is more skewed by the day.  Government for its part expands with regulations and laws that make any kind of start-up business more problematic, let along keeping one going (unless it is, of course, well connected with the government.)  All the while our elites keep assuring us that, without government funding, science would grind to a halt or (if the wrong political party got in power) go in reverse.  It’s a far cry from the open-ended approach that Jobs and virtually every other tech pioneer has taken, even (under some conditions) with the government’s money.

The 1960’s and early 1970’s are thought of as revolutionary, but in truth there were two revolutions going on.  One was social, political and decidedly anti-technological.  It’s the one we normally associate with the “Woodstock” era.  The other was the technological revolution, going on some in universities but ultimately released into the environment by entrepreneurs such as Jobs.  In his person Jobs combines the two; it’s why his company can produce so many electricity consuming products (full of toxic chemicals as well) but at the same time embrace Al Gore’s inconvenient “truths” (Al Gore is, of course, a long-time occupant of a board seat at Apple.)

The thing that most people don’t realise is that, once you bureaucratise the first revolution (and we have) you stunt the potential of the second.  That, I think, is the tragedy of so many companies like Apple sucking up to so many left-wing causes.  Up to now the second revolution has mitigated the effects of the first.  But unless we head off making the first task of creative people looking up the noses of a progression of credentialled bureaucrats (and all the things that reside in those noses) there will be people like Steve Jobs in the world.  They just won’t be Americans.

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