A Linguistic Consensus on Steve Jobs: Visionary

The most popular descriptor of Apple's CEO says a lot about him.

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The cliché: Writing on the Two-Way blog for NPR, Mark Memmott mused on the reactions that poured forth after Steve Jobs's passing. "Look at front pages, listen to news broadcasts or search the Web today and the one word that comes up over and over again in reports about the death of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs is: visionary." Indeed, in the hours after the death was announced, there seemed to be no debate over descriptors. "Apple has lost a visionary and a creative genius," his successor Tim Cook said in a letter to employees.  "The world has lost a visionary," noted President Obama. "Apple's visionary redefined digital age," declared The New York Times headline. The Atlantic Wire's original headline on the news of his death was "Steve Jobs, Apple's Visionary, Dies at 56." Memmott noted, "You rarely see such consensus about someone's legacy." The reasons for that consensus on Jobs's legacy are clear, but the linguistic consensus used to describe that legacy merits a closer look.

Where's it from? Merriam Webster defines "visionary" as "one having unusual foresight and imagination," but it also offers "one who sees visions; a seer." In the early 1980s, Jobs established himself as an innovator of big, new ideas when Apple popularized the personal computer. He was thus, even then, often described as a "visionary". The epithet was certainly an accurate one to describe Jobs, but it's been applied to him so often in the decades since then that, as with any cliché, it doesn't always evoke a specific or original meaning to a reader. Indeed "visionary" is a word often tacked on to technology leaders, presumably because of the first definition, but it also has a more religious or supernatural sense to it, and this, perhaps, is a more nuanced explanation for why it came to everyone's mind upon learning the news of Jobs's passing.

Why it's catching on: The most direct reason for Jobs's "visionary" status was, as Wired's Steven Levy put it, his "innate understanding of technology with an almost supernatural sense of what customers would respond to." Indeed, everyone notes Jobs's ability to see what the consumer would want before the consumer did. "He always seemed to be able to say in very few words what you actually should have been thinking before you thought it," wrote Google's Larry Page. Even Jobs noted this when he said, "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them," and writers noted that he shunned consumer focus groups when creating the iPad.

Why else: In all the obituaries and remembrances put forward last night and this morning, an image comes forward of Jobs as visionary in the sense that he was religiously or supernaturally clairvoyant. Jobs "traveled to India on a quest for enlightenment and found guidance from a Zen Buddhist master," report David Sarno and Christopher Goffard in the Los Angeles Times. Thus did writers append religious language to their tales of Jobs's foresight. Seemingly likening him to the prophet Moses, the LA Times writers continue, "Once out of the wilderness of exile, however, he brought forth a series of innovations... He turned the release of a new gadget into a cultural event, with Apple acolytes lining up like pilgrims at Lourdes."

People also associate visions and visionaries with psychadelic drug use, (since the user quite literally sees visions) something Jobs was no stranger to. "He told a reporter that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he had done in his life. He said there were things about him that people who had not tried psychedelics -- even people who knew him well, including his wife -- could never understand."
Again, Jobs, too, used religious or supernatural language to describe his visions and insights. "Jobs spoke of his desire to make 'a dent in the universe,' bringing a messianic intensity to his message that technology was a tool to improve human life and unleash creativity," writes the Los Angeles Times. He also once described his first sighting of a mouse-pointing device with a graphical display as "one of those sort of apocalyptic moments." "I remember within 10 minutes of seeing the graphical user interface stuff, just knowing that every computer would work this way someday. It was so obvious once you saw it. It didn't require tremendous intellect. It was so clear." Au contraire, Steve, we're not sure it was clear to anyone but you.
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