Steve Jobs, An American Original

by | Oct 10, 2011

“It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” -Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs passed away from a rare form of cancer last week at the age of 56. Since then, I’ve read a handful of articles about the man and the impact he made on modern culture. Maybe you have too.

The one article that stands out for me is by Christopher Bonanos, an editor at New York magazine. He helps us understand Jobs by revealing the connection between Jobs and Edwin H. Land, the “genius domus” of Polaroid Corporation and inventor of instant photography.

Land, in his time, was nearly as visible as Jobs was in his. In 1972, he made the covers of both Time and Life magazines, probably the only chemist ever to do so…

Both built multibillion-dollar corporations on inventions that were guarded by relentless patent enforcement. (That also kept the competition at bay, and the profit margins up.) Both were autodidacts, college dropouts (Land from Harvard, Jobs from Reed) who more than made up for their lapsed educations by cultivating extremely refined taste.

Land, like Jobs, was a perfectionist-aesthete, exhaustively obsessive about product design. The amount he spent on research and development, on buffing out flaws, sometimes left Wall Street analysts discouraging the purchase of Polaroid stock, because they thought the company wasn’t paying enough attention to the bottom line. (When a shareholder once buttonholed Land about that, he responded, “The bottom line is in heaven.”)

In other words, both men were difficult to work with, which is something corporate culture seriously frowns upon.

I also took note of some articles where Jobs is not saluted for his singular vision, work style nor his enormous contributions. Free software advocate, Richard Stallman, wrote, “Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.” Clearly, Stallman has another, more radical, vision for the advance of digital culture, and it’s a vision where sharing is central to the enterprise.

Michael Wolff of Adweek also has some bite in his eulogy.

The rebel and poet and romantic figure, was, too, an authoritarian and despot. Microsoft, heretofore the gold standard in corporate hegemony, was left looking like a disorganized and mealy mouth liberal regime next to Apple’s ultimate dictatorship.

The irony of Jay Chiat’s “1984” Big Brother Apple ad was most of all that Big Brother turned out to have a great sense of style.

Dictatorship seems like a poor word choice, as I believe Apple employees are free to quit their jobs whenever they feel like it. Wolff also says he argued with Jobs when he met him years ago. Why anyone other than Wolff would care, I can’t say.

On a more positive note, Jobs’ friend, the great ad man Lee Clow, wrote in a memo to staff at TBWAChiatDay (Apple’s long-standing ad agency), “He was the most amazing person I have ever known. He was a genius. He was an innovator. He was the best client we ever had.”

The man’s legacy will no doubt be discussed casually and seriously for years to come. Some will insist Jobs was a humanitarian, others will only see the draconian nature of the corporation he led to unquestionable greatness.

In 1985, Jobs said about his hero, Edwin Land, “The man is a national treasure. I don’t understand why people like that can’t be held up as models: This is the most incredible thing to be — not an astronaut, not a football player — but this.” It’s a great point. We need American inventors like Land and Jobs to inspire millions of others to pursue their own dreams and to make things that deliver utility and beauty. We do not need them to coddle the press, or cut corners on the path to perfecting their offerings.