I suspect many of us learned about Steve Jobs’ death in the same way: checking Facebook on our Macs or iPhones to procrastinate from doing work. I read a Facebook status to the effect of “RIP Steve” and immediately went to the New York Times to read the prepared obituary. After I finished I returned to the Times homepage and opened a new tab to go back to Facebook. I was shocked to see the enormous outpouring of grief on Facebook and on the Times’ homepage selection of reader submissions and memories. After all I doubt that any of my Facebook friends actually met Steve Jobs or were ever in the same room as him. Why were people so emotional over the death of a man they did not know?
I thought for a few minutes about this and kept returning to the analogy brought up in many of the obituaries and columns that described Jobs as our generation’s Henry Ford or Thomas Edison. The life-altering products Apple has produced combined with Jobs’ well documented charisma seemed to provide a somewhat satisfactory answer. Later that night my friend asked me “would people congregate for Bill Gates, possibly the greatest philanthropist of our time? I’m not so sure.” I agreed with him and then began to think about what this says about us as a culture. I don’t think there it is necessarily a condemnation of our society but rather it is indicative of who we are both for better and for worse. I think framing the choice as being between the brilliant inventor (Jobs) and the great philanthropist (Gates) is a mistake. It sets up a dichotomy with a seemingly clear moral preference for Gates. However, that dichotomy fails to account for the countless ways in which Jobs’ products have massively improved people’s lives, both social and professional. The grief for Jobs demonstrates how much our society values innovation and especially powerfully we respond to charismatic individuals. The hypothetical lack of mourning for Gates would indicate how much we continue to undervalue philanthropy and giving. I do not think this necessarily means there is something terribly wrong with our culture, but I think it is an important aspect of it to be aware of. There has been a movie about Mark Zuckerberg, there will soon be one about Steve Jobs, but I doubt Hollywood will ever want to tell the story of how the ruthless businessman became his generation’s greatest philanthropist.