Steve Jobs And Gadget Worship

When Steve Jobs succumbed to pancreatic cancer yesterday at the relatively young age of 56, news of his death spread rapidly, which was fitting, as his life was dedicated to creating devices that allow us to connect and share information. Jobs had become the human embodiment of Apple; his simple black turtlenecks seemed as much a part of the brand’s aesthetic as the sleek devices themselves. He was a genius, yes, and he was also a father and husband, which is something I realized I’d never actually thought about until his death. In part, that’s because Jobs was such a master salesmen that he seemed larger than life, a modern-day Santa Claus who created so much hype around his products that the world seemed to collectively hold their breaths — then go berzerk — whenever a new gadget was announced.

I’m writing this on a MacBook right now, with my iPhone at my side, while my husband fiddles with his iPad (his new toy). But despite my seemingly Apple-dependent life, I’ve always remained a bit skeptical of gadget worship, as I’ve had enough fried hard drives, dropped iPhone calls, and frustrated encounters at the Genius Bar to keep my adoration in check. So, despite my sadness at the loss of one of the most brilliant innovators of our time, I have to admit that that same skepticism reared its head while looking at my Facebook feed yesterday, which somewhat incongruously became a mash-up of tributes to Steve Jobs and and Occupy-inspired critiques of corporate culture, all with a healthy dose of baby photos for good measure (because no matter what’s in the news, your baby is still adorable).

Jobs is rightly credited with democratizing the personal computer, with overhauling the music industry through the iPod and iTunes, with creating cartoons at Pixar that make men cry, and with revolutionizing the way we communicate with others. But Apple is still big business: The company was, for a sweet spot this summer, the world’s most valuable company. And the products themselves are not completely benign: Consider the deplorable factory conditions in China and Taiwan, where they’re made, and the environmental impact of their components, which have been tied to heavy metal pollution. These factors are not unique to Apple, as almost any phone, computer, or tablet on the market today is made under similar conditions, but these facts are easy to forget as we find ourselves enraptured with the novelty of FaceTime.

“Think Different” was one of Apple’s most iconic slogans, and in this way, Jobs’ biggest contribution to the technological landscape was that he managed to not only democratize the computer, but perhaps spread democracy itself. He inspired a generation of programmers who have created the myriad information channels that we’ve come to depend on for news. The Arab Spring protests have been called a Twitter revolution, but those people needed computers and phones to tweet from. The Occupy Boston protesters have had a peaceful encampment in Dewey Square, with the city providing them power outlets, so they can keep their phones and laptops charged so their message can get out.

Jobs’ gorgeous gadgets were a reflection of his belief that technology could change the world. It has.