Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the End, It is Not Power that Matters, but What You Give to the World

The craze for power is so all-consuming in India that we tend to forget the other things that matter. Steve Jobs was an exemplar of those other things. He was only 56 when he died. But he will be remembered with the same feelings of gratitude and admiration with which people like Thomas Alva Edison are remembered.

Edison, not Einstein. It may well be that geniuses who worked out the laws of the universe such as the theory of relativity are the true mentors of modern life as we know it today. But they operated at levels that were unreachable by the lay public. The benefits of their work percolated down to us through intermediaries who were adept at turning theories into practicalities.

Edison must of course have been dealing with theories, suppositions and postulates too. But he was essentially everyman's scientist, providing everyman's necessities such as the light bulb. He was a direct descendent of whoever invented the wheel, and of the unknown Chinese inventors of paper and the abacus, mankind's first calculating machine. Steve Jobs belonged to this rare species of innovators whose work made life simpler, better, richer and ultimately more worthwhile for others.

Many inventions and discoveries that enrich our lives also have a negative side to them. Einstein's theories paved the way to the nuclear bomb. The gunpowder invented by the Chinese in the 14th century was put to diabolic uses. A 2004 BBC documentary argued that the computer posed threats more real than what was portrayed in the Terminator movies. It warned that the computer might change the world in ways we do not even know.

May be. But Steve Jobs used computer technology to change the world in ways we love. When he unveiled the personal computer in 1977, people thought he had made the impossible possible. When he introduced the mouse-driven Macintosh in the 1980s, people thought he was a miracle man. After that he became a real magician, with the iPod in 2000, the iPhone in 2007 and the iPad in 2010.

The truly great advances in technology are those that come to be taken for granted very quickly. We take electricity for granted as though it had been there from the beginning of time. We see many of the things Steve Jobs did, such as the advances in mobile telephony, as though they have been there for ever. Wherever we are and whoever we are, the fact is that we cannot live without Jobs any more than we can live without Edison.

Admiration for the man must swell when we realise how much he gave the world and how little the world gave him. His early life was messy. Son of an Arab immigrant from Syria, he was “given away” at birth because his father and mother were not married at the time. During his brief stint at college, his only hot meals came from the free kitchen run by a nearby Hare Krishna centre.

Was that why he went to India in search of spiritual peace when he was only 19? He was clearly a restless man and he experimented with drugs as was expected of restless American youth in the 1970s. He would say later that his roots were in counterculture and that this was an essential part of his persona and belief systems. He went back from India a Buddhist and vegetarian.

Jobs was fundamentally a dreamer and marketing genius. Much of the brainwork behind his early products came from his partner, the engineering whizkid named Steve Wozniac. Together they did change the world, transforming the way computing is done, universalising access to music, simplifying and enlarging the uses of the mobile phone. Steve Jobs was a highly controversial and complicated man. But when he died enemies joined hands with friends to acknowledge his worth. Some compared him with Mozart and Picasso. Remember that next time your ring tone calls you.