Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A man of his time

The camera slowly climbs a wire fence upon which is mounted a "No Trespassing" sign. It is nighttime. We hear dark, foreboding music as a series of establishing shots show us a mansion and its grounds, deserted save for a few monkeys perched on the front gate. The enormous Gothic house looks sinister, it could belong to Doctor Frankenstein. As the camera approaches, we see light coming from one of the windows. The music builds in a crescendo, then suddenly stops and with it, the light is switched off. Cut to inside the room where we see the form of a person lying in bed. Dissolve to a snowstorm, then cut to a small house covered in snow. Camera pulls back to reveal this is the inside of a child's snow globe. Next we see the lips of a man as he says his dying word: "Rosebud." His hand drops the snow globe, it falls to the floor and shatters. In the reflection of the broken glass, we see a nurse enter the room. She checks for a pulse, then pulls the blanket over the lifeless body

Cut to newsreel: "NEWS ON THE MARCH". "Obituary: Xanadu's Landlord" opens the film within a film that chronicles the life and death of the great man, publisher of the syndicated Inquirer newspapers, Charles Foster Kane.

When the film short ends, the projector in the screening room is abruptly shut off and we realize this newsreel is still a work in progress. The producer wants more. "It tells us Charles Foster Kane is dead..." he tells the reporter, "I know he's dead, I read the Inquirer!" He says: "It isn't enough to tell us what a man did. You've got to tell us who he was." The producer and reporter settle on attempting to discover the meaning of his enigmatic last word, as perhaps that would be the key to unlock the secret of his life.

The rest of Citizen Kane features the reporter, Mr. Thompson, conducting interviews with friends, enemies and acquaintances of the deceased, deconstructing Charlie Kane's life in a series of flashbacks, all in the futile (for them) attempt to determine the true identity of Rosebud, and with that perhaps Kane himself.

This is pretty much how the last several weeks have played out as the media have been examining the life of the recently deceased Steve Jobs. Every day it seems, a new angle or twist on the life of the co-founder and CEO of Apple INC is revealed from a friend, enemy, former employee, or all three rolled into one, putting the pieces together of the life of a remarkable, complicated man.

Stevejobs Macworld2005

Honestly I was not prepared for the tremendous outpouring of sympathy and grief following Jobs' passing, the likes of which I haven't seen since the death of Princess Diana. My own take on the guy was that he invented a lot of really cool stuff. Now my cappuccino machine is also really cool, yet I don't know who invented it, nor do I particularly care. Media pundits who expressed similar faint praise of Jobs, have been raked over the coals by those who hold him in high esteem as the man who changed the world.

Jobs' esteem has only meteorically risen in the last month. Since his death Jobs has been placed well within the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of the greatest innovators, creators and inventors this world has ever known.

Here is a New York Times piece that favorably compares Jobs with Thomas Edison. Jobs indeed made his presence felt in a number of industries. In addition to personal computers, he played a significant role in the motion picture industry with his involvement in the animation company Pixar, in the music industry with the development of Apple's iTunes, and in the communications industry with the iPhone. The folks who compare Jobs with Edison use these points to make the comparison, but consider this:
  • Jobs' role in the motion picture industry was to financially back a film company. Thomas Edison was one of the inventors of the motion picture camera.
  • Jobs' contribution to the music industry involved changing the way music is distributed. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph.
  • Thomas Edison did not, contrary to popular lore, invent the incandescent light bulb, he was just the first to make it work. In order to make his light bulbs work, he first had to come up with a system to generate, then supply electricity to homes and businesses. He did that too.
In other words, if you were to pull the plug on Thomas Edison's most important contributions to society, every one of Steve Jobs' contributions would become very slick looking paperweights.

Here's a Forbes piece that claims Jobs is Henry Ford and Walt Disney rolled into one.

Unlike Disney, Steve Jobs' involvement in Pixar, was for the most part financial, not creative. Nevertheless, like Disney he demonstrated vision, in advancing a relatively new art form, and commitment to putting out a quality product. Pixar proved once and for all that it's not simply enough to wow the audience with technical mastery, but that good storytelling and humanity are really the most important aspects of the art of film making. The technical side should always be the servant to creativity, and the work that Pixar has produced to date, without fail, has demonstrated this.

I think there is even a more plausible connection between Steve Jobs and Henry Ford. Neither man invented the product(s) that made them famous. But each in his own way brought those products to the general public. Henry Ford was instrumental in developing the system of mass production that made automobiles affordable for the middle class. Steve Jobs, at the forefront of the development of the personal computer, gave us with a little help from his friends, the Apple II, a powerful (for its time) machine that people of average means could afford, and the Macintosh with its Graphic User Interface (GUI), a machine that the average person actually wanted to use. The Mac and the software that runs it never became the top selling personal computer system on the market, but the user friendly GUI, (Mac's version was often imitated, never duplicated), became the industry standard for the vast majority of personal computers, and enabled anyone who desired, to become computer literate.

It is impossible to downplay the effect of the automobile and the computer on society, Here I'm quoting myself from an earlier post:

The industrial revolution that Ransom E. Olds, Henry Ford and others started in Detroit is largely responsible for creating the middle class as we know it in this country. It was one of the first times in history where factory workers would build something that they actually could afford to buy. The automobile brought a kind of freedom, previously enjoyed by only the upper strata of society, to just about everybody.

The computer also brought a new independence to the general public, but like the automobile, not without a cost.

In recent months, the Occupy Wall Street movement has brought the issue of income disparity to our attention. Here is a graph that documents the percent of wealth controlled by the richest ten percent in the nation between 1917 and 2008. As you can see, the percentage of wealth controlled by the elite began to shrink at the outset of the Great Depression, but really took a nose dive at the end of World War II in 1945. This post-war period could be called the golden age of the Middle Class in this country, when American Industry was the most powerful in the world, when unemployment was relatively low, and blue collar workers, especially in big industry, made a very decent living. Things began to change in the mid eighties when big industry, including the auto industry, began to shut down or move their operations overseas. During the economic boom of the nineties, blue collar jobs continued to evaporate at an alarming rate, while the rich just kept getting richer. This is reflected clearly in the graph.

There are many reasons for the decline of industrial jobs in this country, but certainly one enormous factor is the loss of jobs to the computer. The upswing in elite control of the wealth of this nation in the seventies and eighties corresponds directly to the start of the high tech revolution. With the explosion of the internet in the 1990s, came the longest and steadiest upward trend in income disparity in ninety years, peaking at the Dot com bust in 2000. A few years later, around the time Steve Jobs started turning Apple around with his iStuff innovations, the line trends up again.

It may not be a stretch to say that while the automobile had a strong role in creating the American Middle Class, the computer played an equally strong role in its downfall.

At this point, Steve Jobs advocates, at least those in the OWS movement, might want to get off the bus and leave their man as a mere bit player in the computer revolution, and give all the credit, or blame, to Bill Gates.

With all the revelations coming out about Jobs, it may not be far fetched to add another comparison, the fictional Charles Foster Kane.* True the two characters could not have been more different, Jobs' background was solidly middle class while Kane's family found itself literally on top of a gold mine. Kane's primary business interest, the Inquirer, was inherited while Jobs founded Apple Computer, along with his partner Steve Wozniak, in his parents' garage.

Yet there are parallels that are worth noting. Both men were separated from their birth parents. Neither earned a college degree. Jobs dropped out of a community college, and as for Kane; "Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Cornell, Switzerland... he was thrown out of a lot of colleges. "

Kane and Jobs both owed their success to the inspiration of their adopted fathers, but in diametrically opposite ways. Steve Jobs credited his father for teaching him how things work. Jobs said of his adoptive father:

I was very lucky. My father, Paul, was a pretty remarkable man."

Paul Jobs, a machinist at as laser manufacturing company gave a piece of his workbench over to his young son. Again here are Steve Jobs words:

...he gave me some of his smaller tools and showed me how to use a hammer and saw and how to build things. It really was very good for me. He spent a lot of time with me... teaching me how to build things, how to take things apart, put things back together. He showed me the rudiments of electronics and I got very interested in that.

In a moment of self reflection late in life, here is Charlie Kane in a conversation with his long time associate Mr. Bernstein and his adopted father/guardian/caretaker, the Wall Street mogul Walter P. Thatcher:

Kane: You know, Mr. Bernstein, if I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.
Don't you think you are?
Kane: I think I did pretty well under the circumstances.
What would you like to have been?
Kane: Everything you hate.

Neither Kane nor Jobs were primarily driven by money.

Kane of course didn't need the money; here he is, again to Thatcher:

"You're right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I'll have to close this place in... 60 years."

Jobs was clearly driven to make his mark on the world by creating products of the highest standards of design as well as technology. That was certainly the key to his success, but his monetary compensation was chicken feed compared to that of other moguls in his industry. Of course you could feed a lot of chickens with his 8.3 billion net worth. Anyway, as CEO of Apple INC, Jobs received a salary of one dollar per year. Obviously in the end, he didn't need the money either.

I think it would be fair to say that Apple's success is largely a victory of style over substance. True, Apple products are well made, high quality items. Most of all, they look great, whether its an iMac sitting on your desk, the super sleek MacBook Air on your lap, or the iPhone pressed against your ear. What's more, they're fun to use. Small wonder that most Apple users are fiercely devoted to Apple products.

There are other products out there that do the same or even better job, usually for less money. PCs for example are more flexible than Macs. When you buy an Apple product, you buy into Steve Jobs, Apple and all that entails. You are forced to play by Apple's rules, their limited, dedicated software, the lack of backwards compatibility, and a whole range of limitations that most Apple diehards don't care about or simply overlook.

Charles Foster Kane when questioned by his first wife what "people will think..." about his incessant attacks on the President of the United States, barked back: "What I tell them to think."

Steve Jobs essentially had the same relationship with his customers, and they listened to him with relish.

Both Kane and Jobs enjoyed being in the spotlight. Jobs was almost as good as marketing himself as he was his company. His trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans created a look that fit in well with Apple's casual, hip, up to date image. The problem with being hip and up to date is that what's hip and up to date today is stale and out of date tomorrow. This is not only true about fashion, but also products. Look at this picture of Steve Jobs taken in the eighties with early models of the Mac. What at the time was a man and a product who were both at the cutting edge of technology, today looks like a forlorn piece of useless junk being sold by a (sharp dressed) Maxwell Street huckster. Since they are practically obsolete from the moment you take them out of the box, computers don't age well. Unlike automobiles, there is not much of a market for vintage computers, unless as a prop for a period piece movie or play. My vintage 2002 iMac G4, the one that that I'm typing on now, in its day blew people away with its sleek, elegant design, but today looks tired and dated in not an entirely charming way.

Steve Jobs must have thought long and hard about his own legacy, he hand picked the man who wrote his authorized biography, Walter Isaacson. Isaacson, who like Jobs has CEO credentials in his resume, had previously written three biographies, one on Benjamin Franklin, another on Albert Einstein, and still another on Henry Kissenger. Jobs clearly saw his place in history residing next to at least two of those subjects.

As for me, well I'm not so sure. We're currently in the midst of the computer revolution and can't possibly gain correct perspective on it. Things sort themselves out over time, in one hundred years, those few who might be interested the end of the 20th Century, might remember Steve Jobs' name in connection with Apple's development of the Graphic User Interface. But I think there's little doubt that Bill Gates will be forever known as the father of the personal computer revolution.

Probably the biggest difference between Steve Jobs and the fictional Charles Foster Kane is that Kane died long after his relevance to society did. At the time of his death, he was already a relic of the past. Steve Jobs left this world while still on top. He was so important to his company that on the day he announced he would be stepping down from his post at Apple a few months ago, stocks in the company tanked. With the vacuum he has left, it's difficult to say what direction the company will take in the future as far as product development goes. Apple products today are highly valued and serve as upscale status symbols. In their day, so were Packards and Studebakers. People however still drive Fords. Walt Disney's name is still on his studio as Edison's is in the industry he helped found. Edison, Ford, Disney, and more than likely Bill Gates, are names for the ages. Steve Jobs was very much a man of his own time. He shook up the industry and the world with his terrificly cool and innovative products. But products come and go and when all the iPhones and iPads and iWhatevers end up in the recycling bin, something even cooler will come along to take their place. Without Jobs, it's quite possible that they will come from somewhere other than Apple.

None of this is intended to in any way disparage Steve Jobs, his life or all he accomplished. His was a charmed, brilliant, and creative life, one that will be missed. The reaction following his death says more about us than it does about him.

Some people say that everybody thinks their own generation invented sex. In other words, we're so wrapped up in our own little worlds, we forget that the folks who came before us experienced much the same things we do, including radical changes in their own world. I don't know if historical amnesia is unique to our own time, but it sure is rampant. Our world is indeed changing before our eyes. Yet I look at my grandmother's life and realize that the changes that have taken place in my own lifetime pale next to hers.

My grandmother could remember a time when there was no electricity in her home. When she was a child, the streetcar was the primary means of transportation about town if you didn't want to walk, or if you weren't rich and could afford a horse and buggy. If you wanted to get someplace far away you would need to hop aboard a train powered by a steam locomotive. She lived through Prohibition and the Great Depression. She lived thorough two world wars and several other wars, including a cold one. She lived through the assassination of two presidents. My grandmother experienced a time when there was a distinct possibility that the world might come suddenly and violently to an end. My grandmother could remember a time before there was radio in the home, and the time when the airplane had yet to be invented. Yet approaching the twilight of her life she saw a man walk on the moon, live on TV.

Did Steve Jobs change the world? Of course he did, just as millions of people did before and millions will after him. I think it's fair to say that he had a little bit of Edison in him, some Ford, Disney, Ben Franklin, with maybe even a little Einstein thrown in. I'd add a little Charlie Kane and a whole lot of P.T. Barnum to boot.

In the end he was the guy who made people fall in love with computers, including me. No small accomplishment. In my book I'd say that, all by itself, is pretty cool.


*The character of Charles Foster Kane in Orson Wells' Citizen Kane was based loosely on the life of the famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst. Even though the film took pains to differentiate the two as Hearst's name appears more than once in the movie, the similarities were not lost on WRH, who unlike Kane, was very much alive throughout 1940. Hearst did everything in his power to prevent the movie from being released, unsuccessfully of course.

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