Steve, We Hardly Knew Ye

Steve, We Hardly Knew Ye

Richard Wolin: Steve, We Hardly Knew Ye

Despite the fact that I pride myself on a low-tech approach to life (my scholarly model has always been the nineteenth-century homme de lettres, an approach that jibes poorly with the digital age?s premium on instantaneous communication), I felt a special twinge of sadness at Steve Jobs?s passing. Steve and I were college classmates. Admittedly, not for long; yet college classmates we were, nevertheless. We both attended Reed College in 1972-73. You might say that I knew Steve Jobs before he was Steve Jobs.

Steve had had his fill after one semester–at the time, he said that he didn?t want to waste any more of his parents? money–and dropped out to live a bohemian life in Portland, Oregon for the ensuing eighteen months, crashing on friends? couches and scrounging here and there for food. Later on, our brief acquaintance–to call it a friendship would be stretching things considerably–afforded me one of my best lines as a parent. ?Steve Jobs and I went to college together,? I would tell my kids. ?He was the smart one: he dropped out to found Apple computers.?

I must admit to being somewhat surprised by the outpouring of celebratory media coverage surrounding Steve?s death, much of which portrayed him as a modern American hero–something of a cross between Myles Standish and Thomas Edison. Of course, as the driving force behind Apple?s astonishing success, Steve?s accomplishments eminently deserve to be feted. After all, what would our lives be like today were it not for the iPod, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, and all of the dazzling software applications they?ve spawned? Less obsessed with the mesmerizing world of technological gadgetry and more attentive to the well being of others? Perhaps.

But in my humble view, where Steve really came up short was in the social citizenship department. Never an easy person to get along with, he was well known both for his penchant for micro-management as well as for publicly humiliating employees and colleagues. From the numerous obituaries we?ve learned that, for the last several years, his friend Bill Gates had urged him to establish a charitable foundation. After all, at the time of his death, Steve was worth $6.5 billion, and, as they say, you can?t take it with you. But Steve would have none of it. Now the decision about what to do with his vast fortune rests with his widow, Laurene Powell.

Toward the end, a few other disconcerting biographical morsels and tidbits emerged. On the one hand, Steve claimed that his four children were the most important thing in his life. Having kids, he once told a close friend, was ?10,000 times better than anything I?ve ever done.? Yet, as the clock wound down, Steve took pains to commission a major biography because, as he put it, ?I wanted my kids to really know me. I wasn?t always there for them, and I wanted them to know why and to understand what I did.? It seems that since, in his final years, Steve spent so much time devoted to Apple product development, his kids would have to consult the authorized biography in order to find out who their dad really was. What?s wrong with this picture?

For Steve, it was all about making your own decisions and choices rather than letting other people make them for you. When he delivered the commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, he referred to death as ?life?s great change agent,? since it forced you to focus on your own choices rather than allowing ?the noise of others? opinions drown out your own inner voice.? In this respect, Steve was a genuine American rugged individualist, a digital-era Horatio Alger.

How these various discrepancies harmonize with the hagiographic news reports and commemorations, I am not quite sure. Who knows? Perhaps Steve was even cleverer than we all assumed, and the avalanche of celebratory death notices was merely the ultimate marketing ploy.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima