Mourning Steve Jobs' Death—and Our Own Future?

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Tributes to Steve Jobs have been as global as the reach of Apple products, services, and suppliers, covering everything from life's meaning to the critical art of supply chain management. But they have been especially heartfelt in the U.S. 

The elegiac note arises partly from Jobs' skill, criticized as well as praised during his lifetime, in creating a relatively narrow range of product models that nonetheless became more personal than the profusion of competitors' designs. In America, there's another factor. Jobs' death coincides with an anxiety level about the future of the U.S. not seen since the 1970s. 

As an Economist blog put it:


As bad as their politics has got, Americans could always comfort themselves with the knowledge that their business leaders, entrepreneurs and workers were the most dynamic and innovative in the world. But they may look back on 2011 and see three events that undermine that story: the downgrade of America's credit rating; the last flight of the space shuttle; and Mr Jobs's death. The first, coming as it did on the heels of a debilitating and entirely pointless fight over raising the debt ceiling, captures how American political dysfunction has undermined the economy's institutional pillars. The latter two symbolised the waning of, respectively, American public and private technological pre-eminence.

Jobs has often been compared with Thomas Edison, most recently by Randall Stross in the New York Times; I have a commentary of my own in The American. Equally signifcant are the differences between the public reaction  to their respective passing in 1931 and 2011. In this respect Edison still has the edge; the nation's lights were turned off for a minute to honor a request from President Hoover, and radio broadcasting was likewise interrupted for silence. 

Both Edison and Jobs were mourned as self-made geniuses whose deaths ended an era. According to Paul Israel's Edison: A Life of Invention, the response was nostalgia for the day when an ambitious young person with little formal education could become a great industrialist and change the world. The future belonged with the great corporate research laboratories, and Edison had never created one. Yet even amid catastrophic levels of unemployment, even before the optimism of the new deal, pundits as far as I can tell did not say that our best years were behind us -- even though recorded music and phonograph sales, Edison's most active business, had virtually collapsed. It's different now. See the take of Obituary Magazine,linking to Scott Timberg's lament in Salon not for Steve Jobs (never mentioned by name) but for the entire Creative Class -- until recently the predicted winners of the Web.

Early Depression elites still saw the possibility of a technocratic rescue through research, development, and job creation, even if stagnationist theories spread later in the decade. In fact the spirit of the Depression was often not nearly as depressed as our own. The literary historian Morris Dickstein has written of its "daffy optimism, elegance, and energy."

Steve Jobs was one of those people who set out to become a genius -- he was never recognized as such as a child -- and succeeded, like Friedrich Nietzsche. As I've suggested elswhere, Jobs' status as a genius became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Too much self-confidence can be ruinous, as Jobs himself discovered the hard way. But nothing is more contrary to the spirit of Steve Jobs -- who co-founded Apple in gloomy 1976 -- than an equally self-fulfilling pessimism.                                                         
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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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