Phi Beta Cons

The Cultural Meaning of Steve Jobs’s Death

If you have paid any attention to the news, you can’t have missed the endless outpouring of emotional tributes to Steve Jobs over the past two days. If you are on Facebook, your home page has likely been filled with status updates like these:

Steve Jobs, I really loved your Facetime on iPhone and iPad. I talk to my parents face to face who are a half way around the earth as if they are right in front of me. You made me happy. Thank you.


Sitting in a kitchen filled with Steve’s gizmos: two Mac Airs, two iPhones, an iPad, etc. etc., it’s hard to over state the man’s impact.

And my personal favorite:

I’m gonna wear the Steve Jobs uniform (black t-shirt and jeans) this friday. Who’s with me?

Those are just a few of the lines I gleaned from my own cadre of Facebook friends. What’s most striking is just how personal the sentiments were. This man, after all, designed computers and music players. He had no personal contact with the masses who are now mourning his passing. Yet many of the memorials I’ve read have the kind of emotional intensity one might expect from the loss of a close friend. Across the country, people have traveled to Apple Stores to lay down wreaths, notes, and flowers in his honor.

Like many of us, I am surrounded by Apple products — an iPod, an iMac, a MacBook Air. I e-mail friends, video chat with my parents, record music, write magazine articles — all on Apple products. I am writing this blog post on a Mac at this very moment. Apple makes great stuff: I understand why people love the company. What interests me more is how admiration for a company and its products has translated into intense admiration and — in many cases — something like love for the man who ran the company.

#more#I heard a college student in an interview on the radio yesterday explain how the fact that Apple’s products made it easier for him to work and express himself made him feel as though Apple really “cared” about him. Many people seem to feel this kind of mutuality of affection between themselves and the company, or themselves and Steve Jobs. It strikes me as particularly true of today’s youth, whose social interactions in the real world are so deeply intertwined with their virtual interactions via computer and smartphone, that the distinction between real and imagined emotional connections is becoming increasingly blurred.

I admire Steve Jobs and all he accomplished. From what I’ve read he was a decent man in addition to being an ingenious one. While Jobs himself avoided getting openly involved in politics, I worry about some of the political lessons that might be found in his passing. I worry about the intensity of emotional resonance that his passing has had on young people insofar as they felt personally “cared for” by Jobs simply because his products made their lives better.

I worry because this imagined emotional mutuality (“I care for him; he cares for me”) reminds me how some young people seem to long to be “cared for” by government. It reminds me of the way many of them felt personally devoted to and “cared for” by Barack Obama during the height of the “hope and change” movement four years ago.

Many years ago, Woodrow Wilson, the father of American progressivism, gave a speech entitled “Leaders of Men,” in which he attempted to describe how great leaders inspire the illusion of personal empathy between themselves and the masses:

Such men incarnate the consciences of the men whom they rule. They compel obedience, not so much by reason of fear as by reason of their infallible analysis of character. Men know that they speak justice, and obey by instinct. By methods which would infallibly alienate individuals they master multitudes, and that is their indisputable title to be named leaders of men.

The ability of great leaders to inspire personal devotion in the masses is a fact of human nature. But I wonder, in an age of virtual friendships and virtual reality, where distant acquaintances are increasingly made party to the intimate thoughts and details of our lives, including family photos and swimsuit snapshots from last summer’s vacation, along with all our most mundane “likes” and dislikes, if the power of leaders to inspire the empathy of the masses has become even more potent than Wilson — in his wildest progressive dreams — could have imagined.

The question is: Does imagined intimacy make the masses easier to manipulate?

With the click of a “Like” button on our phones, society’s leaders can now enter the virtual sphere of our personal “friends.” More than ever, we are primed for the illusion of imagined empathy, primed for the confusion of the political and the personal. By virtue of such imaginary personal connections, the masses are becoming more easily led. A dynamic personality, not political substance, is what wins the votes. Youth today want to feel that their leaders care about them. In the wake of a generational decline of religious faith, America’s young people seem to hunger for a messianic or heroic figure to imbue their lives with a sense of purpose.

Along with all the positive economic and material benefits Steve Jobs helped bring into the world, his very personal impact on many in our culture alerts us to a political danger that comes along with all those technological benefits. This generation has embraced the manifold illusions of iLove and iCare. In the future, we may have to fight even harder to slow the intrusive hand of progressivism, as many “Leaders of Men” in Washington seek to fulfill Wilson’s progressive dream by managing more and more of our lives at the cost of our liberty. Ultimately, no matter what our Facebook status tells us, our elected leaders ought to be thought of as public servants, not personal “friends.” Else we risk trusting them blindly while they lead us, with many warm friendly feelings, step-by-step, hand-in-hand, all the way to an Orwellian future.