I want to make it clear from the outset that this post is not a personal attack on Steve Jobs. I have not come to bury Jobs' reputation, nor have I come to praise him.
Rather, this post presents how I feel the Apple fanboys have made Steve Jobs into something he wasn't.
On the 5th October 2011, the co-founder and CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs, died. There then followed an outpouring of tribulation fit for a Roman cæsar. Of the many epithets paraded were: inventor of the iPod, inventor of the iPhone, and of course that other major invention which has already marked out our century as one of the greatest so far: the iPad.
And if Jobs also invented Apple computers, the Mac and all its variants then he must have been the most hands-on CEO in history.
In all fairness to him, it's probably because he was so private and, in all honesty, little more than an iconic (aided by his 'uniform') and luminary figurehead in many people's eyes that his acolytes attributed all manner of achievement to his name. Another factor may have been that post Windows 95 a lot of Apple's fans must have felt that they were a banished minority; that some Westinghouse-Edison commercial battle had taken place between Apple and Gates' Microsoft, and Apple had lost out to the alternating current of operating systems. Indeed, the very fact that Apple's fans were a minority probably added to the sense of cognoscenti. Doubtless this notion would have been bolstered by Jobs' sagacious return in 1998 from the computing wilderness (how many fanboys can honestly say they owned a NeXTcube or a NeXTstation?) to the trumpeted fanfare of the adored iMac. Nonetheless, what the computing world witnessed in the days following 5th October 2011 was a manifest Cult of Personality.
Put another way: in the clear light of day we can see that people have attributed to Jobs more than his fair share. Portable MP3 players were around before the iPod, and it was two ex-Apple software engineers who built the operating system for the original iPod, and it was Jonathon Ive who designed the appearance of the iPod (although design patents usually carry Jobs' name in the same way that early Rolling Stones songs attribute Andrew Loog Oldham as co-songwriter). What Jobs most likely did was assign budgets, approve designs and so forth while delegating the work to his staff in his famously-belligerent manner.
As an aside: to any of those who have visited an Apple store, do you remember the glass staircase? Probably not. You might of course remember that there was a staircase, but can you remember anything specific about it? Are you surprised to learn that said staircase is actually patented? And whose name do you think is first on the patent? That's right, Steve Jobs is also a designer of glass staircases. This webpage ascribes all manner of virtues to Steve Jobs' staircase design skills.
I happen to own a dislike for the way in which Apple market themselves based on a lifetyle and appeal to peoples' sense of identity; telling people what they want rather than what they need, but although this is indicitive of the post-Edward Bernays society in which we now find ourselves, I can't blame Jobs for this either. He has a marketing team who create these strategies and produce images, tag-lines and the rest of the work that every CEO of a multi-national corporation leaves to their marketing teams.
It's been mentioned before that there was a sort of reality distortion field around Jobs. For example, a large part of the iPad 2's launch was taken up by Jobs' presenting the Smart Cover - hardly an advanced piece of technology. Only when things had sobered down post-launch-party did journalists start to point out that the iPad 2 didn't really offer much more than its predecessor. I want to avoid debating Apple's products directly; the point here is that people became fascinated by any and every announcement that Jobs made. I'm still to be convinced that there's a purpose for tablet computers. Of course, I can understand that a doctor might wish to take one on his rounds and access patient history and perhaps use it to better explain procedures. They might also be handy for taking your own films to watch onboard a flight. Can I see why students would prefer a tablet over a laptop during a university lecture? No.
At the launch of the first-generation iPad Jobs said that Apple expected to sell something like 5 million iPads before the end of that year (it was launched at the end of January 2010). They sold more than this. Can I understand why iPads became a huge success? Yes. Sadly I believe it's an amalgamation of peoples' covetous desire to own something that outwardly expresses their identity to those around, and a magnetism that extends outwards from everything Steve Jobs said.
Did this make Steve Jobs a visionary? In my mind no. It says more about us consumers. However, by definition it did make him into some degree of leader. Whether right or wrong, consumers followed what Jobs said and it is this that I believe is defined as a Cult of Personality.
Encyclopædia Britannica defines 'Cult of Personality' as
an idealised and heroic public image, often through unquestioning flattery and praise
Did (and does) Steve Jobs have followers who hung onto his every word? Are ideas and concepts attributed to Steve Jobs arguably through his position at Apple Corp.? Did claims that he made come true in part because it was Steve Jobs that made the claims? Did people make allowances for his negative aspects or skip over some parts of his life that didn't fit their image of him (Jobs once told the Wall Street Journal that taking LSD was one of the two or three most important things he'd ever done)?
Do Apple fanboys buy Apple products simply because of their adoration of the co-founder and former CEO? Yes, I believe they do. Could this be defined as herd instinct? Yes. Wikipedia's page points out that
Often, a single leader became associated with this revolutionary transformation, and came to be treated as a benevolent "guide" for the nation without whom the transformation to a better future couldn't occur.
Some might point out that Jobs was simply charismatic, an attribute that Max Weber defined in his "Theory of Social and Economic Organisation" as
a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.
However, Weber goes on to write
How the quality in question [charisma] would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.
In other words, charisma is not by definition fit for consumption. Furthermore, charisma and the Cult of Personality are not mutually exclusive. Weber strongly aligned his "Charismatic Authoritarian" classification with a Cult of Personality.
While I'm loath to draw major comparisons between the Apple co-founder and ruthless dictators responsible for the deaths of millions, there are obvious parallels between the way in which historical dictators (for example, certain former Soviet leaders - names need not be mentioned) block any negativity in relation to their name, and the manner in which Jobs banned all publications from Wiley after they published an unauthorised biography.
When reflecting on the career of Steve Jobs one can easily see an adherance by his fans to many aspects of his personality. Yet one can also see that this adherance extends beyond the bounds of what would realistically be possible. Could the same man that invented glass staircases also invent the iPod? At the same time there are unorthodox aspects which are too easily forgotten: While living in a largely Christianised country, Jobs was a buddhist who put a lot of influence down to taking LSD in his younger days. There's also an abundance of tales relating to his bullying nature at work. In a New York Times review of Walter Isaacson's official biography Joe Nocera writes that
“Steve Jobs” offers so many examples of his awful behavior — incorrigible bullying, belittling and lying — that you’re soon numb to them.
It is for the reasons explained above that I believe Steve Jobs' public profile is in excess of his actual achievements. I have also explained why I think there are many aspects of Jobs' character which people are too willing to overlook in order to find the person they want. In itself this is a human trait and might seem harmless, but I would question what difference there is between a person, say a leader on the national stage who makes claims about a race which are questionable, but whose entire legion of followers believes, and the CEO of a technology company - currently the richest company in the world - who fires people because they don't share what is regarded as his 'vision' or 'dream'? This is always explained away with the observation that Jobs was an ambitious man, like many other great achievers in history.
In days gone by the church would have canonised someone of this public stature. And yet perhaps the truest and fairest comparison of all is with his greatest competitor, Bill Gates, who once claimed he would put a PC on every desk and in every home. Between the two it is Gates who has come far closer to achieving what they set out to do, and while Jobs ended his career vowing to "go thermonuclear" and to use his "dying breath" fighting Google on the grounds that their Android operating system ripped off the iPhone - see here - (to be fair to Google, it's not as if the iPhone was an entirely original and revolutionary product when it was released), Gates has ended his career at Microsoft by vowing to use his own money to rid the world of malaria.
It is the simple attribution "because he's Steve Jobs" that I believe a Cult of Personality has overshadowed the real achievements of this undoubtedly intelligent and talented man and the usefulness of the products that the company he co-founded reveal each year. Julius Cæsar's ambition was decried as a "grievous fault", so why is Jobs' force of personality seen as a virtue and why do we close our ears to other character traits? Herd instinct is all too powerful when following a charismatic leader.