Thursday, October 6, 2011

Reflecting on Deaths: Steve Jobs and Fred Shuttlesworth

On my long commute to work this morning, I listened to the concatenation of NPR stations that I can receive on my way up. This morning, coverage was almost completely dedicated to the death of Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs. While death is often a sad event, especially for the friends and family of the deceased, the coverage struck me with how extraordinarily reverent and hagiographic the discussions were. Jobs’s life and career were frequently described as “visionary” and that he “transformed our culture.” Big words.

Jobs was undoubtedly a brilliant person who had much more of an impact on others than I ever will. I’m no expert in technology and I’m sure he was visionary and did transform consumers’ consumption of information, but the intense celebration of his personhood doesn’t sit right with me. Within the professional world of design and computer technology, such celebration is likely appropriate, but to the society at large, I’m troubled. Within that larger societal context, Jobs produced, marketed and sold devices. While these devices are often very elegant and efficient machines (full disclosure, I own a few Apple devices), they did not “change the world” in an morally meaningful way. Most of the important Apple products simply serve to consume products in new ways (iTunes and the replacement of CDs with mp3 files), provide mobile access to the internet (iPhone) or created the demand for new products (applications for iPhones and iPads). The Apple-centered market has transformed the character of certain sectors of our economy, but the larger capitalist economy either remained unchanged or was strengthened. As for consumers, this especially changed the habits of some middle-class, upper middle class and wealth folks who could afford those products. One thing that Apple does seem to have done very well is to make consumers emotionally connected to products--I don’t know if this is a good thing.

A later news story provided a contrast, in both its duration and content, that further illustrated my discomfort with the coverage of Steve Jobs. In a short break between talk about Jobs, mention was also made of the death of Fred Shuttlesworth, who along with Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy, was one of the original founders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a critical agent of the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike Jobs, Shuttlesworth was directly involved in actions that have fundamentally changed the moral and cultural environment of the United States and the world--clearly for the better. Shuttleworth’s “vision” focused on issues of basic human decency and existence--big topics. However, the media coverage of his death takes the form of more of a footnote than headline.

Whose life gets amplified through obituary says a lot about what is important in culture. Jobs gets a lot of attention because he nicely reinforces important cultural themes--individual achievement, technological progress, material comfort and making profits. Again, I have nothing against Steve Jobs, my criticism is of the cultural celebration surrounding him. Jobs was important, but for the larger society and culture, someone like Shuttlesworth seems more deserving of post-mortem adulation and praise.

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