Steve Jobs: The Measure of an Impact

October 6, 2011 — Leave a comment

Steve Jobs’ death yesterday, after a long fight with cancer, was not entirely unexpected. The outpouring of reflections and remembrances could have easily been foreseen, as well. Looking through my Twitter feed, it was clear: a huge number people in the developed world use Apple products everyday. But to reduce Steve Jobs to his legacy of shiny products is unfair. In 100—or even 10 years, for all we know—Apple might go downhill and nobody will remember the iPod or the iPhone except for nostalgia. Products are stationary. They are made and, like any human being, they eventually die. The true mark of Jobs’ legacy is in the impact he had on the world through those products.

The news yesterday got me thinking about the measure of impact, and what it actually means to have an impact at all. When we say that somebody has “changed the world,” how do we mean it? We could be talking about how Steve Jobs, along with his partners, created the company that birthed the first personal computer and has defined our relationship and interaction with computers for the roughly three decades and counting. We could talk about how Steve Jobs changed the way we buy and consume music and media through iTunes, the iPod, the iPhone and now the iPad. We could even be talking about how Steve Jobs’ sense of design and aesthetics has come to define our concept of style in modernity. These are all worthy and world-changing impacts to be sure. Few can say that they have touched so many things that have become so globally important. Without Steve, our world would look vastly different.

Is that sort of direct, physical impact the only kind worth noting, though? It’s certainly the easiest to measure, but surely a person’s impact goes beyond those confines. When John Lennon died and people wept openly in the streets and held each other in their arms, what, really had John Lennon done? He created music that a lot of people loved, but surely the world would not have been too physically different without that contribution. Surely, if that was the only true measure of an impact, people should be marching in candle-light vigils all over the globe, crying inconsolably at the thought of Steve Jobs’ passing. The impact of the transcendent is far more affecting, and though its scale is smaller and more personal, that intimacy breeds a kind of love that makes the loss that much harder to take.

John Lennon made people feel. Through his art he changed the world, one soul at a time. That’s important, and it speaks to the impact we can all have very easily by simply connecting with each other as human beings. Steve Jobs did not have that sort of impact, not technically, but I think the strong outpouring of emotion in the face of his death signals that his impact really did go beyond the confines of our material lives. He was a transcendant man because he had a vision.

Perhaps the best example of Steve Jobs’ vision in its more pure form is found in the company often left by the wayside amongst all the tech-talk. In 1986, Steve Jobs paid $10 million of his own money to buy and invest in a small computer graphics division of George Lucas’ huge empire. The company would come to be called Pixar, and Pixar would go on to produce Toy Story, the first full-length computer animated feature, and then follow that up with the single greatest run of critical and box office success in the history of Hollywood studios.

With Pixar, Steve Jobs was neither the technical genius, nor the creative genius. Ed Catmull and John Lasseter deserve the credit there, and they get it all the time. Steve Jobs, to a certain extent, was just the money behind it all. That’s not something to scoff at, but it also diminishes what made him so important. Catmull and Lasseter may have had dreams of computer animation, but it took a man like Steve Jobs to see the potential of that dream, to really build something out of it. He brought an ethos to the development of that studio. He built it in Northern California, outside of the Hollywood system, and pushed the people there to strive for greatness, not simply technological achievement. Yesterday, John Lasseter released a statement about the passing of Steve Jobs:

Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply ‘make it great.’ He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA. Our hearts go out to his wife Laurene and their children during this incredibly difficult time.

“Make it great.” Such a simply idea. So obvious in retrospect, but the truth is, Steve Jobs would have had an impact if all he ever did was give us the Apple Macintosh, just as Pixar would have ushered in an age of computer animation even if Toy Story had been a terrible film. But Jobs had a vision that extended beyond that physical, that transcended the basic. Jobs aimed to build a world in which our interaction with technology was not merely utilitarian, but actually emotional. With Pixar, he saw the chance to change the face of Hollywood, but he also saw the chance to touch people’s hearts through the magic of film and art.

Maybe that’s where the real measure of Steve Jobs’ impact can be found, not in the stuff he got us all to buy, but in the vision he had for how we would use that stuff; in the vision of what a modern world would look like. And we truly do live in Steve Jobs’ world now. From computers to music to movies, Steve Jobs gave us his vision and that vision has come to define our world. He showed us the future, told us it was within our grasp, and strove to “make it great.” Steve didn’t just sell us a bunch of products, he sold us the future. How’s that for the measure of an impact?

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