Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Is there anything new to know about Steve Jobs, beside his staunchly shielded private life? But for a student of media, the urge to drop some comments (even if they are personal) on this singularly defining juncture in new media history can be very strong.

Nobody could help that urge. Even total strangers, in the millions, who never knew him (personally), except perhaps using the devices from Apple, the company he co-founded and led, had something to say, something to reveal, in mourning his death.

As we saw, Jobs was all over the news. The social media networks saw unprecedented outpouring- #RIPSteveJobs, #ThankYouSteve, #WeLoveYouSteve, etc. By one estimate some 2.5 million tweets were posted in the 13 hours following his death. Many of them used the devices he helped create to post those tweets. The post-Dashain coverage in our media, with some outlets deciding to devote full-page tributes, also illustrated that the tech giant from Palo Alto of California was too important a figure to be ignored anywhere in the world.

To lay bare, I started with a Mac computer in the early 1990s but soon switched to PCs because my peers were using them more often. I used T-mobile, Nokia etc. and haven’t personally bought an iPod, iPhone, or an iPad. Yes, I do love to touch, fondle, caress and mess around with these elegant iDevices with child-like curiosity and awe whenever I happen to come across one. Now I should contemplate a switch-back, perhaps, because everyone is lining up for the latest versions of iPad or iPhone.

It is only when someone dies that one begins to think about the full scope of his or her contributions, impact or significance. And when the news of Jobs’ death began to spread, the image of the iMan behind those devices with simple, spare, sleek, user-friendly and uncluttered interface emerged rather complicated.

In their posthumous adulations, critics, fans and hagiographers all characterized him in so many diverse ways: We lost a visionary, a genius, designer, an innovator, a developer, an inventor, a creator-rebel, business leader, creative and technological visionary, a billionaire, a famous problem solver, bit of an eccentric, a geek who hacked phones, built computers, and wrote code, a pioneer in the eternal human search for unity, a capitalist, a matchmaker, a veritable pop icon, a very determined genius who revolutionized global technology, a very private man, a great presenter, a college dropout, a prodigious orator and inspiration to many, a Zen Buddhist, a great man.

And still there were more qualifiers: A great friend as well as a trusted advisor, a singular talent, a prophet of that uniquely American genius, the creative entrepreneur, a driving force in industry, technology and business, a community-minded leader who focused on the advancement of the world, a technological marketing guru, a rock star, someone on the scale of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison, a respected competitor, a masterful presenter and marketer, a god for designers, a man who was idolized around the globe, a person who helped connect the world, a brilliant and highly innovative technician, with great business flair and marketing ability, a counter-culturalist, a lot of great things, etc.

Great men can be multifaceted, and hence confusing. So, what exactly was Jobs really? As new work environments and role associations emerge in this globalized and technologically-driven world, we are beginning to see more examples of the blurring of borders, shifting of professional identities, and change in roles. Today, teachers are discovering and realizing that their role actually is of moderators or facilitators. Gurus have become mentors. Journalists have become more like media or information workers. Rebels have become artists. Roles overlap; managers are also leaders in as much as they set a vision, communicate and help execute it.

To make the long list short, Jobs’ death certificate described him as a “hi-tech entrepreneur”. Still, what can we call a composite of all these qualifiers? At times, he seems to have embodied contradictory traits. For all the money he made after returning to a company he quit and then helping rescue it finally from bankruptcy, perhaps the best description of Jobs would be a business leader, an excellent salesman. He helped create smart, revolutionary addictive devices that shot Apple’s fortunes (currently worth $70 billion). For his obsession with simplicity of designs, perhaps he was the master “image-maker” on top of all his talents. The problem is we are trying to define him under our nose and we don’t have the benefit of a distance to know him more objectively.

No doubt, Jobs’ superb skills in “imaging” his products and his company with perfect timing and suspense among journalists and competitors as well as his business acumen is worth emulating. During the recent Dashain festival there was the opportunity for me to bless my sons wishing they could be like this tech giant: Steve Jobs bhayesh!

But even the greatest lives are not perfect. They contain elements of fear, disgust. The thought of the hard walk Jobs walked to reach where he reached stopped me from even mentioning his name. He was abandoned by his own biological parents. No parents can wish their kid dropped out of the school, tried drugs, had a child outside of wedlock, disowned that child, had to walk seven miles every weekend for a good meal at the Hare Krishna Temple while at college because he did not have enough money to buy food, co-founded a company only to be later fired from it. No parents would want to wish their child to be a weirdo, a misfit, a rebel, and finally a victim of cancer.

Yet, his narrative is too compelling for a “rugged” American success story and for any human struggle anywhere with feats of survival and humbling defeats. And this should be the real story of this incredible individual. Bitter it may sound to his fans, some critics have actually said many of the rosy qualifiers attributed to him are actually inflated and inaccurate. They have called him “a convenient fiction”, “a cult of personality” created by the media and promoted by people who simply love the success story of Apple. So, according to this view, the mass media need “heroes”, larger than life, to personify their products, and Steve Jobs, despite his many limitations and for all his enigmatic personality, served to fulfill that role.

Jobs’ focus on the “i” is perhaps indicative of his idiosyncratic, creator-rebel tendencies. It antagonized him with many in the workplace but also helped to personalize/customize the device on the individual unit level, inflate his own ego, and attract media attention. No doubt, he was a remarkable agency, but he also owes to the American enterprise, where marketers and marketplace of ideas find space to fall, pick up and thrive. If that were not true, you wouldn’t find a Prabal Gurung or a Darshan Rauniyar, for example, trying their bit in that country today!

Perhaps for any momentous event like the death of a personality who has been compared with the likes of Thomas Edison, you don’t necessarily need to know him personally, you may be content with the feeling of the zeitgeist formed around that figure. This article speaks to my own such feelings, the sense, the touch of the interface between new technology and the human agency behind that technology.

Any new technology (including the iDevices) has a way of enchanting us, and there is the mystic of the unknown pervading the technology that is in the process of evolving or becoming “something” definitive ultimately. For me, Jobs merely happens to offer the front-seat view of that mystic touch in the evolution of new media today. If it were not him, there would be someone there already filling in for him (example Bill Gates).

Locally, and historically, in Nepal, Gehendra Shumshere, with his inventions in irrigations and machine guns and water mills, etc symbolized that awe inspired by the combination of technology and human agency. The group of engineering students who built the ultra light aircraft Danfe and successfully tested it in Pokhara on December 6, 2008 evoked similar feelings. There are so many examples around us. For now, let me close with this hashtag: #iManByeMan!

Published in Republica, October 12, 2011