On October 5, Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, died. Many people posted tributes to him, many of them using devices he invented to do so. There was a lot of comment as to his genius in both technical and marketing aspects. There is no denying he was savvy and built one of the wealthiest corporations in the world, in addition to revitalizing a nearly-extinct brand, bringing it international repute. Apple, Inc.–and arguably Steve Jobs himself–changed the way much of the world consumes music and other media, changed our conception of what our personal electronics can do for us, and raised the bar for what we expect in quality from film animation to user interfaces and experiences. Whether or not people are Apple fans or even use Apple products, the world consumes digital media and communicates differently than it did twenty years ago, and it is impossible to deny that Steve Jobs played a role in that transition. Yet despite all the wonderful things that have been said about him over the past few days, Steve Jobs has his detractors and certainly not everyone thought he was so great. There are also people who think that the gadgets and technology he created are hurting us.
I don’t know if Steve Jobs was a nice guy or not, I don’t know if the money I have paid over the years for Apple products has gone to unfair labor practices in China or has been spent lobbying Congress for more favorable corporate legislation. I can only assume that a man who rose to such great corporate power in America’s political and corporate climate probably did his share of corporate maneuvering, which undoubtedly hurt people along the way, and that is certainly unfortunate.
But how do we differentiate between men and their legacies? Thomas Jefferson was by all accounts a great American, but there is plenty of evidence that he owned slaves, as did George Washington. There are rumors that Walt Disney was anti-Semitic. Even Mother Teresa had detractors.
Is it possible for us to know whether someone was overall good or bad? Is the comfort that Steve Jobs brought to millions through technology greater than the suffering of the over-worked Chinese laborers who built it? Is the benefit of being able to know what’s going on anywhere in the world by using a handheld device greater than the cost it might have to our personal health?
The lenses through which we see our history are imperfect, and we know that history is written by the victors, or the politicians, or whomever is able to distribute the word. As an American, I’m sure I have a very different view of our Revolutionary War than do British men of the same age as myself. I was alive during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and I hear today’s politicians telling what seems to be a different version of events than I recall. One only has to open two different newspapers or watch two different cable news channels to see that even facts are relative when you have an opinion on the matter.
I saw a friend’s post on Facebook the other day suggesting that Steve Jobs didn’t deserve the fanfare he had received, and instead we should be ashamed for not giving equal fanfare to the 6,000 U.S. troops that have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past ten years. I asked the poster what about the 600,000 who died of heart disease last year, or 74,000 from Alzheimer’s, or 18,000 homicide victims? 2 million Americans die every year, some with more or less fanfare than others. Who gets to decide how we should feel about each one, or whether we should feel anything? Does a soldier who signs a contract and would willingly give his life for his country count more when he does die in combat? Does the answer change if it was an Iraqi soldier and not an American one? Does a man who is tried, convicted, and executed by the state count less than a man without a criminal record? Does the answer change if the guilty man was actually innocent and the free man the real perpetrator of the crime?
So who is right? Are we all? Are any of us? As with anything else in life, I think it’s important to be honest, but only we can determine truth for ourselves. I think it’s important to understand as best we can, form our own opinions, and move forward from there. We spend our lives willingly relinquishing control to others, for any number of reasons. Are we also to relinquish control of our own emotions? I welcome information, I welcome input, I’ll even welcome advice. But I make up my own mind, and I feel what I feel. If I’m saddened by the death of someone whose life or legacy impacted me, that’s my prerogative. I can even be elated by it if I want.
I believe that people live their lives the best they can, making the decisions they do with positive motives, even if those motives aren’t always apparent to everyone else. I’m realistic, though. I know that sometimes good people hurt others, but I also know that even in the worst among us there is some good. So when people die, I try to remember whatever good there was in them, because I want to believe there is good in all of us. In cases where there was a lot of good, or they impacted me positively, I will celebrate their lives–faults and all–because I am better for their having lived, and that’s worth celebrating. In cases where there isn’t much, or at least where I don’t see it, I think I’m probably indifferent on their deaths. I don’t see the point in fixating on or spreading negativity. Who does it help? It just takes so much energy to hate. I won’t waste it on people who are living, and I’m certainly not going to waste on the dead.