Steve Jobs, Satoru Iwata, and You
By Ross Reelachart
On October 5 of 2011, a life among many others passed from this world. Yet when this particular flame went out, there was a flood of mourning and sentiment, the kind normally reserved for royalty or national tragedies. Everywhere there was an outpouring of grief, and people congregated at certain singular locations to lay down flowers and candles, to say goodbyes and leave mementos of thanks to this life. The entire world was seemingly put into a state of loss, and many in media mourned the loss of this great life.
On Wednesday 19 of 2015, a documentary made its east coast debut at the Naro Expanded Cinema here in Norfolk, not too far from Old Dominion University. This documentary chronicled the life of this same man, and showed footage of all the mourning and tears. In “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”, director Alex Gibney attempts to find a reason for why so many people were willing to buy flowers and light candles for a man that sold them iPads and iPhone, and then treat Apples stores as shrines of worship. Through interviews with people who knew Jobs closely and historical footage of the man at various places in his life, Gibney tries to not only find the source of this worship, but he also seems to ask if Jobs was actually even worthy of the praise and the mourning.
In the end, Gibney’s documentary leaves the impression that Jobs was not a perfect man. The end conclusion can best be summed up as “Jobs had the monomaniacal focus of a monk but none of the empathy of one.” However, the question that was most intriguing was “Why did people have such an emotional reaction to Jobs’ death?”
The footage in the documentary would seem silly to anyone not indoctrinated into the Cult of Apple. There were people holding up iPads with digital candles on them, and flowers were being piled outside of stores. People were shedding tears and getting memorial tattoos for a man, and a massive corporation, that did nothing but sell them products for money.
Jobs had never met these people personally or done anything for them meaningful in their lives beyond manufacture and sell a hunk of plastic and silicon that connects to the internet, and one that needs to be bought and re-bought on an almost yearly basis for hundreds of dollars.
Like so many others, I wondered where in that maniacal business model did there exist an honest reason for tears and mourning.
Gibney’s documentary detailed a belief Steve Jobs held that could answer my query, and another recent passing of a similar nature helped me better understand that belief. For all the single-minded business practices and harsh demands Jobs insisted upon himself and others, he truly believed that the computer could be more than just a machine we use.
He believed that the computer could be a personal object (thus was the term “personal computer” first coined), and could be a method for self-expression. In his own mind, building and using a computer was akin to a new artistic medium, and he was going to be its pioneer.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s that was a revolutionary idea, and it’s what carried him into the founding of Apple and helped turn Apple into the single biggest corporation on Earth. This would have simply been an interest point to me on its own. But the recent of death of Nintendo President Satoru Iwata brought this point into stark clarity for me.
On July 11 of 2015, Satoru Iwata passed away. He too garnered a similar reaction from gamers and game developers worldwide. Many wrote about his influence not only on Nintendo itself, but on the writer personally. People drew fan art and honestly mourned the passing of the man.
He too was, more or less, just an executive at a giant corporation that sold products for money. Like Jobs, Iwata also had a similar background of coming from humble beginnings to rising to the very top. Nintendo and Apple may be very different beasts overall, but both these men were big names of their respective technological fields and they both were worthy of grief at their passing.
When I remembered how I felt about the news of Iwata’s passing, I think I finally understood why people put flowers in front of their iPads for Steve Jobs and I had a better understanding of a concept Gibney’s documentary elaborated on.
Just as people had a strangely heartfelt connection for Steve Jobs seemingly through the iPhones and iMacs they bought, so did people have a connection to Satoru Iwata through Nintendo consoles. It’s a phenomenon that has been stealthily occurring to nearly everyone in the modern age.
As technology not only becomes more portable and interconnected, so does our personal connection to the technology itself and, by proxy, the creators as well. In what must be a victory for Jobs, we now see our smart phones and tablets as more than just devices to be used. They are expressions of ourselves, and they become an extension of our egos and personalities.
To make another example, it’s very similar to when people become so attached to their favorite music, movie or TV show that they become personally offended by someone who doesn’t like it or has no opinion on it. We have attached part of ourselves, our self-worth and our own sense of identity to these pieces of technology.
The Apple community is seemingly such a strong force because it is a “community.” They are the “Apple Tribe” and so they stick together, and feel together, as is the nature of the social human.
Gamers separate themselves into a factional “Console War” because they become attached to a community centered on a Nintendo console, the Playstation or the Xbox. Though they all orbit around a soulless piece of technology, these people still find purpose and expression in being a part of that orbit.
Jobs and Iwata gave a human face to idolize and worship, as even the most fanatic still need a human face to put to their “community”. It only just so happened that Jobs and Iwata were also blessed with an amount of charisma and charm that elevated above so many others, their peers and opposition included.
Knowing all of that, the idea that so many people would be saddened by the death of a corporate executive who may or may not have had any real hand in making your favorite electronics does not sound too preposterous. People still cry when their favorite actor or singer dies.
The only difference is the medium through which this personal connection is made. On one hand there is film, song and word. On the other hand is technology and electronics. When that connection is made, empathy seeps through.
Like all great questions of the past, and of our own time, this question of your connection to technology and its creators is best utilized as a way to reflect on ourselves. At the end of “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine,” Alex Gibney ponders his own reflection in the blank screen of a powered-down iPhone. In that black, reflective surface he wonders how much of himself in that device and how much does that put him in connection with Steve Jobs, or the vision of Jobs.
When you look into the blank screen of your own phone, tablet, computer or TV, how much of yourself do you see in it? How much of your identity is inseparable from it? And how much of that is the designs of the person who made it?