It’s not about Jobs, it’s about hope

The mantra in Washington these days is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Then, today, for a brief moment, the focus shifted — to Jobs. The reaction to the death of Steve Jobs has been remarkable for both what it says about the man and our times. But it is also resonant because of a message it has ...

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The mantra in Washington these days is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Then, today, for a brief moment, the focus shifted -- to Jobs.

The reaction to the death of Steve Jobs has been remarkable for both what it says about the man and our times. But it is also resonant because of a message it has sent that has yet to be received, it seems.

The mantra in Washington these days is "jobs, jobs, jobs." Then, today, for a brief moment, the focus shifted — to Jobs.

The reaction to the death of Steve Jobs has been remarkable for both what it says about the man and our times. But it is also resonant because of a message it has sent that has yet to be received, it seems.

It has already been observed that it is stunning to see such a seemingly heartfelt, widespread sense of loss and emotion for the death of an American CEO at a moment when Americans are finally and understandably taking to the streets to protest what is seen by demonstrators to be the hostile take-over of the U.S. economy by big business interests.

Somehow, Steve Jobs transcended his role as a business man in much the same way that for many the products his company produces have transcended being seen as mere devices, workaday slabs of technology. Some of that was due to great marketing, of course. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Marketing does not work if it doesn’t ring true or if the promises made to consumers are not kept by manufacturers. And some of the Steve Jobs difference was due to a willingness to set aside knowledge of the company and its founder’s missteps or hard-ball, sometimes, arrogant business tactics. But again, such facts are not easily set aside unless they are overshadowed by other factors.

In the case of Jobs, what set him apart was not just that he was a visionary or that he was successful. There are plenty of other tech titans who made billions who could drop dead tomorrow with nary a notice in the paper or a teardrop being shed outside their immediate families. In some cases, you might even hear the faint sound of cheering within their immediate vicinity.

It was not just that he was a good-looking, thoughtful, articulate spokesperson who combined just the right elements of geek and master of the universe, of everyman and of being the Willy Wonka of the digital era. Because good spokespeople for industries come and go, yet how many of even the very best would have prompted local television stations to pre-empt programming to run announcements of their demise as did my local station in DC, last night?

No, part of what set Steve Jobs apart was that he delivered on a promise that was bigger than any he or Apple or his industry could have made. He delivered on the promise of the future.

Among the most unsettling aspects for this particular observer of Jobs obituaries are the line that reads "1955-2011." Because 1955 doesn’t seem that long ago to me. It is, in fact, the year I was born and I for one, am resolutely convinced that I am not old enough for an obituary. But that shared birth year also lets me understand a bit of where Jobs was coming from. It came from a childhood marked by grand promises associated not just with living in the richest and most powerful country in the world at the time of seemingly never-ending ascendancy but with serial technological breakthroughs. There were spaceflights and satellites and color televisions and 8-track tapes and polyester and TV dinners and Tang and oral polio vaccines and computers the size of your high school auditorium. And when there was a lull in innovation there was the Jetsons or "Time Tunnel" or "Star Trek" to double down on the promises.

And then we grew up and we waited for the flying cars to come.

As it happened, despite some abortive efforts, George Jetson’s personalized flying saucers never arrived. Nor did the rocket packs. But there were innovations that gave you the sense that something cool really was happening, that today was really different from yesterday and that tomorrow was almost certainly going to be much better.

I remember having that feeling when I bought my first Apple 2-C computer with its twin floppy drives and my dot-matrix printer. I remember it when later I got my first Mac, when I got my i-Pod, and more recently, when I got my i-Pad. In fact, with each new innovation, Apple and Jobs seemingly got better and better at understanding that I didn’t buy technology purely because of what it did or how fast it did it. I bought it because of how it made me feel.

Steve Jobs helped conceive and design and promote products that did the basics, meeting a need, but that did more, that reconceived how we would consume information or share it, and then added to that great performance and even an aesthetic that went far beyond the look and feel of a screen or museum-worthy product design. These products had great intangibles, great touch, gave off a great vibe. They were revolutionary and they felt revolutionary and they made us feel like we were part of the revolution.

As a consequence, Jobs’ departure leaves many wondering who is going to make us feel that way about our lives and futures again. Oh sure, these are just things we are talking about, products. But they are part of the fabric of our lives and for the most part, the warp and woof of that fabric is pretty dull, coarse stuff.

We need hope. We need a sense that the promise has been fulfilled so fully that it leaves us optimistic that tomorrow’s promise will be too.

That’s the message that many politicians seem to be missing at the moment. Yes, we need jobs. But we need more than that. We need Jobs…or at least what he promised. We need hope. To a large extent the protests on Wall Street are about that…not about business or corruption or special interests coopting our leaders, although those things are there. They are protests that like the complaints of Tea Partiers and demonstrators from Athens to London to Tahrir Square are condemning not fiscal deficits or bank failures but our optimism deficit and our leaders’ failures of imagination.

The message that needs to be delivered, the message of Steve Jobs’ death to our political classes, is that our real recovery won’t start with or be signaled by a number. It’ll come with a feeling, the feeling of a promise reinstated and of hope restored.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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