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On Steve Jobs

In Toronto Magazine, December 2011, On Steve Jobs

In Toronto Magazine, December 2011, On Steve Jobs

When Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs died, I, like many others, posted a “rest in peace—you were an inspiration” status update on Facebook. Seconds later, a friend responded by posting Jobs’ moving Stanford University commencement address from 2005. A global village was in mourning over the death of someone who was an iconic symbol of innovation. In the hour that Jobs died, tweets directly related to sharing the news of his demise were up to 10,000 per second. Not many corporate CEOs get that kind of attention. The companies he led (Apple, NeXT, Pixar) transformed the way people deal with and assimilate technology into their lives.

Another comment in response to my status update, however, shocked me. An intelligent, globally conscious young Facebook friend responded to my “you were an inspiration” comment with “an inspiration of mass production, resource depletion, poor factory conditions, lack of humanity, etc.”

Not everyone, it seems, believes the technological contributions Jobs made have left the world in a better place.

I first became aware of Steve Jobs, not because of Apple, but because of Pixar. I had started my career as a graphic designer and illustrator in the animation industry, and I paid close attention to how Pixar’s three-dimensional style changed that industry, raising the bar for what audiences would expect from an animated film experience.

When Jobs returned to Apple in 1996, his company soon revolutionized pocket-sized and tablet devices. The iPod changed not only how people listened to music, but the entire music industry. Then came the iPhone revolution. Then the iPad revolution. Apple’s product design is so strong people have become conditioned to upgrade their products yearly. Throngs of people line up outside Apple stores in migration cities all over the world to purchase the latest gadgets. What kind of pressure does that put on manufacturers to stay on top of demand? What kind of resources are being depleted to keep up?

For years, I blithely and eagerly upgraded my Apple computers, iPods, and so on, readily consuming each iteration. I now question my motivation. With recent media reports of Chinese adolescents allegedly committing suicide over inhuman working conditions in Apple product manufacturing plants, Apple is going to have to be held accountable for its contractors’ working conditions globally. How will this affect the bottom line?

For consumers hooked on these products, what is our social responsibility, given how integral these products are in how we communicate, work and live, compared to other products on the market?

Jobs was a genius at connecting to the end user. He was a visionary figurehead yet known to be a ruthless bully of a business man. Was he fully aware of the true cost of innovation? Do the ends justify the means? How do we as the end user reconcile our notions of entitlement with inhumane business practices that exploit?

Michael Thorner tweets at @michaelthorner

This column originally appeared in IN Toronto Magazine, December 2011 issue.
Editor: Gordon Bowness