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History Lessons for Modern Times

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2011-11-03


A good friend of mine who works at Apple recently attended the on-campus memorial for Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and guiding force, and other than the performances from Coldplay and Norah Jones and a tribute from Al Gore, he thought it was similar to other services that he'd been to in Fort Wayne. Virtually everybody at the Silicon Valley complex attended the service, with standing-room only crowds filling the outdoor amphitheatre in the heart of the company's campus. My friend explained that the mood at Apple had been understandably darkened by the loss of the company's visionary leader, but the service did much to lessen the sadness surrounding the loss of such a vital presence.

In the weeks following Jobs' death, it's been fascinating to observe social critics and business experts as they try to put the man's life into some kind of historical perspective. Almost immediately, comparisons were made to both Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, two other visionaries whose achievements created a lasting influence on the lives of millions of people. Masayoshi Son, chief executive of Softbank Corporation, the sole carrier of the iPhone in Japan, went even further: "Steve was truly a genius of our time with a rare ability to fuse art and technology,” Son said in a statement. “In centuries from now, he will be remembered alongside Leonardo da Vinci. His achievements will continue to shine forever."

While I have no desire to diminish in any way the accomplishments of Steve Jobs, I think it's wholly appropriate to respond to the esteemed Japanese CEO thusly: hold on a second there, Son. There are a few tiny differences here. Da Vinci is widely considered to be not only one of the greatest painters of all time, but probably the most astonishingly diverse and talented man to ever to breathe air on earth. He displayed virtuosity across an impossibly wide range of disciplines and sciences: architecture, anatomy, geology, sculpture, cartography, botany, mathematics, engineering, painting, writing — the list is virtually endless. Jobs? Well, he made gadgets. Cool gadgets, to be sure, but to compare him to da Vinci is not only an incredibly inaccurate, modern overreaction, but something of an insult to those who appreciate the genius of the Italian renaissance man. To put it another way: da Vinci designed bridges, came up with the ideas for the helicopter, solar power, the tank, the calculator, he made discoveries in optics, hydrodynamics, anatomy, and oh, yes, he also painted the two most famous paintings in world history, "Mona Lisa" and "The Last Supper." By comparison, Jobs made the iPhone and the iPad. He belongs "alongside" da Vinci? I can't believe that Jobs himself would have done anything but scoff at the notion.

Well, okay, I guess I should remember that Masayoshi Son is a businessman and perhaps not the most gifted at making historically relevant analogies. But his words reflect a popular sentiment among many social critics today, namely, the "Tyranny of the Now." It's a philosophy that seems to believe that anything noteworthy that happens in our time is the greatest, most significant event ever, and all that other stuff — you know, history — simply doesn't matter. Therefore, Jobs is da Vinci, and Obama is George Washington and Bono is Elvis and Albert Pujols is Babe Ruth and who cares if the comparisons don't really add up? What matters is the now.

Nobody's asking me, of course, but if I was to try to put Steve Jobs into an appropriate context I'd lay off the da Vinci and Edison and Ford comparisons and focus more on the great designers who have had lasting influence on everyday things: Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles and Ray Eames, hell, even the designers at Whirlpool and Maytag and Jenn-Air or the genius who came up with the Lucky Strike "bull's eye" logo. Jobs was an innovator, to be sure, but he was fundamentally a designer, a man who had a refined sense of simplicity and elegance that attached itself to all of his creations.
I think it's a distracting and inaccurate notion to turn all savvy businessmen and forward-thinking artists into mystical, larger-than-life Supermen who seemingly grab Fortune's Wheel and spin it at their leisure, forever changing the course of modern evolution. More than one obituarist has claimed that Jobs "changed the world" but I think it's more likely that Jobs happened to be the right man at the right time with the right opportunities. Try to imagine if Jobs had never existed — don't you think that something like the "Mac revolution" still would have taken place? It's a historical inevitability. And I think it's hardly a coincidence that Jobs and Bill Gates were born in the same year — both were the right age at the right time with the right circumstances to nudge the world into the computer age. If it hadn't been them, it certainly would have been someone else.

In 2008, when Barack Obama was elected, a lot of political experts were adamant that the historical precedent of an African-American becoming President was due mostly to the man's inherent largesse, that his personal greatness was most responsible for his sudden elevation into the world's most important job. It's a simplistic explanation, for Obama's election was contingent upon a number of social and historical forces converging at the right moment: the miserable George W. Bush years, the changing, younger demographic, the shifting of the nation's population to cities, the heightened concern about the way America is viewed internationally — all of these forces, combined with Obama's admittedly strong personal charisma, helped make the election possible. Even three years later, it's astonishing to remember that Obama carried Indiana in the general election — not since LBJ had a democrat won the state, and I think it will be another 50 years before it happens again. It's a tantalizing thought, but I'm convinced that a Barack Obama Presidency would have been unthinkable in 2004 or 2012: it had to be 2008, when everything fell into place, or never. Obama didn't "make history" in 2008 — it's more the other way around.

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