Steve Jobs was a supreme example of a culture maker.
He made cultural goods, in every sense of that word. “Real artists ship,” he famously told his engineers. Culture is only changed when you make more of it, and, boy, did Steve Jobs make more of it.
He pursued excellence, and in particular he pursued beauty. In every market Apple entered, it did things more cleanly, elegantly, and beautifully than its competitors. It’s not too much to credit Steve Jobs with the return of beauty to the center of our culture’s aspirations.
He built teams. Yes, by all accounts he could be an abrasive manager, to say the least (though one hears fewer stories of that from the last ten years, when Apple had been rescued from disaster and, perhaps, illness had chastened him in some ways). But he pulled together teams of 3, 12, and 120 that demonstrated tenacious loyalty and disciplined creativity in the otherwise fickle world of Silicon Valley. He was a celebrity, but he was not a rock star—he was a leader. That makes all the difference in the world.
But all this, and so much more, is fairly obvious. I think something less obvious will be Steve Jobs’s greatest legacy.
The most fundamental question of our technological age is this: Will technology make us more, or less, fully human?
Steve Jobs just may have decisively shifted the answer to that question. He embodied the hope that the answer is more.
The Mac was launched with this brilliant promise: “1984 won’t be like 1984.” Apple’s products respected human beings—their embodiment, their quest for beauty and meaning and even joy—in a way that their competitors’ did not. And Steve himself, who exuded calm and confidence and vision even while he stirred consumers to frenzies of desire and competitors to distraction, envy, and imitation, represented our vision of ourselves as we hope we can be: not slaves to technology, but free and creative users of it.
In this broken, beautiful world, there are no pure icons—but neither are there any completely empty idols. Apple’s bitten apple is not an icon—like all idols, the more fervent the worship the more it will disappoint. And yet, it is, and Steve Jobs was, a sign of something true and worth seeking: a fully human life. For all of us who seek that life, the only proper response to Steve Jobs’s extraordinary culture making is: thank you.