Steve Jobs was a genius. No one could doubt that. His genius lay not in technology, as most of the obituaries and eulogies reckoned, but as master of hype, hope and marketing.
He was the secular prophet for the secular age, preaching the gospel of the technology that offers salvation, but only a salvation of better and more beautiful machines. The only higher power he believed in lies hidden somewhere in the power of more RAM, more powerful chips and in the perfectibility of an earthly operating system.
Atheist he may have been (though no one knows what he thought in the moments just before he slipped quietly into the awful and infinite mystery of death), but the mystique of Apple, which he never quit trying to perfect and extend, had all the trappings of religious faith for a secular age. He thought about faith a lot.
Shortly after he was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer in 2003, he was invited to give the commencement address at Stanford. Mortality was much on his mind, as such thoughts naturally are for an ailing serious man. “No one wants to die,” he told the students assembled on the lawn at Palo Alto, Calif. “Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent, it clears out the old to make way for the new.”
This was not new stuff, not even from the oracle of the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad. Socrates and Buddha said it better. But when he died at 56, the full force and appeal of an organized religion spread across the land. Thousands of iPod and iPad owners descended on Apple stores to turn them into sidewalk shrines and temples. Many dropped to their knees, some folding their hands in the universal pose of supplication to the heavens, to offer prayers to … well, it wasn’t quite clear to whom. Perhaps to an unseen motherboard.
Wondrous as Mr. Jobs’ machines are, there’s an arrogance about Apple that turns infidels - the unfortunate skeptics armed only with a PC from Dell or Sony - into puzzled seekers, like curious Christians trying to plumb the violent contradictions of the Koran. A customer puts down his $500 for an iPad, and the only instructions he gets is the assurance that “it’s intuitive, you’ll understand how to use it.” Nobody gets an owner’s manual, and unless the customer has been using one of the wondrous machines that preceded his iPad - someone who already knows the rituals of the tribe, the secret handshakes, the words to the strange hymns, the baptismal rites - he’ll want to throw his new toy into the street to be punished under the wheels of traffic. Only slowly, like a Mason suffering through 33 degrees, does Mr. Jobs’ wondrous machine reveal its riches.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to argue with success, and Steve Jobs won his success the hard way, by giving his vision its working clothes and protecting it from the hewers of wood and chippers of stone who couldn’t understand what Mr. Jobs was talking about when he described the destination of his machines as “the place where technology meets art.” He recognized the Internet for what it is, an “amazingly efficient distribution system for stolen property,” and figured out how to exploit it all with the personal computer and the machines that flowed afterward from his amazing imagination.
He was the ultimate capitalist, driven to get all the profits that his imagination, vision and business smarts entitled him to, but his legacy to the corporate world is limited. Without the vision, the value even of hard work is limited. He was contemptuous of the toys of the mind so precious to the graduate of the business school. He regarded consultants and focus groups as well-meaning wastes of time and money. Or worse. “We figure out what we want,” he told Rolling Stone in 2003. “And I think we’re pretty good at having the right discipline to think through whether a lot of other people are going to want it, too. That’s what we get paid to do. So you can’t go out and ask people what’s the next big thing.” He was fond of recalling Henry Ford’s story of inventing the automobile: “If I’d have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have told me ‘a faster horse.’ “
He understood the moral of the story.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.