Steve Jobs, An American hero, is wholly authentic because—in addition to being a brilliant, cranky inventor in the mold of Gyro Gearloose or Thomas Edison—he has a hero’s history of failures and false starts that he turned into successes. He is an American hero in another sense, too: a supercool billionaire, the dropout son of the early ’70s counterculture whose seminal text is The Whole Earth Catalog. He is resigning from Apple at the height of his achievement, the pinnacle of his fame, the most gorgeous gracility of his charisma, his fortune growing miraculously in spite of his salary of $1 a year—all without the benefit of a necktie.
We know the world, and each other, better because of him. With his Apple Mac he managed, in the words of Walt Whitman, to “unscrew the locks from the doors.” He precipitated an enlightenment. But as with the dazzling light of many great inventions, unexpected shadows were created—the greatest of which is an eroding of privacy, now verging on a total loss of solitude. Beware of darkness.
The essential things to know about Jobs’s life emerged in a speech he gave in spring 2005 at Stanford University. It was a commencement address, an ungripping form, and yet Jobs’s speech was one of the wisest I have ever read. The style in which he framed the address shows that while the computer world gained a supergeek, the literary world might have lost a powerful storyteller. In fact, his life has a weirdly fictional flavor, as though he’s the embodiment of the urgent dreamer.
Jobs prefaced his Stanford remarks by saying: “I never graduated from college. Truth be told, this is the closest I’ve ever gotten to a college graduation.” He then told three brief stories—the first about how he had been adopted as an infant; the second about being fired from Apple; the third about being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Three serious reversals that illustrated rejection, exclusion, and near extinction. But he gave significance to each one, saying how it sent him into the wilderness, strengthened him, made him the lateral thinker and innovator we know him to be. Look deeper into Jobs’s influences and you see not microchips and circuit boards but India, the Beatles, LSD, and Buddhism. In the nervous, incurious world of today, these markers are salutary for their apparent waywardness.
I was 50 when I got my first Mac, the SE, with a screen so small it seemed like a squat one-eyed dwarf, with a prim mouth to swallow floppy disks. “It’s real glitchy,” the nerd brigade told me when I complained. But every year—often twice a year—thanks to Steve, there was an improved computer to buy, allowing us to write at the speed of light. It is no exaggeration to say that the Mac revolutionized our lives and energized the market. Each new model was an aesthetic pleasure as well as a technological improvement.
This combination of beauty and function is Jobs’s achievement. In the Stanford speech he said that after bailing out of Reed College, he developed an interest in typefaces by dropping in on calligraphy classes. It is just the merest glimpse into the man’s mind, but it reveals something of both his aesthetic sense and his technical shrewdness. This impulsive drop-in, he claimed, accounted for the multiple typefaces on the first Mac.
Now about those shadows. Jobs opened the world—“unscrewed the locks”—and made information accessible. But in the hectic transactions of life today, something important has been lost. We older people know it as privacy, almost an unknown concept today. I feel that at some point in the near future, there will be a mournful awakening and the stunning realization “I have given it all away”: all our numbers, all our details, all our quirks and secrets and searches, and even our dreams, and we will stand naked. The computer that allowed us to stare in wonder at the world has allowed the world to stare pitilessly back at us.
In public appearances in recent years, Jobs has been thinner, whittled to his essence, and yet somehow this seemed to emphasize his elasticity and endurance, a metonym for his ever-thinner, ever-more-adaptable machines. “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life,” Jobs said toward the end of the Stanford speech. “Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important?.?.?.?There is no reason not to follow your heart.”