The apotheosis of Steve Jobs

October 6, 2011

If BMW had an auteur—the kind of auteur Apple had until last night—would his fans gather at local BMW dealerships when he died to light candles and toss flowers in front of showroom windows the way Steve Jobs fans are now at Apple Stores around the world? Would they storm Twitter to post recollections of the first and second BMWs they owned and thank Mr. BMW for having made their ordinary trips to the store for milk and eggs more like cosmic adventures in motoring?

Obviously not. No other gadgets have wormed themselves into the global psyche the way Steve Jobs’s have. Like most of Jobs’s coups, the takeover was a matter of design. Although he had been synonymous with Apple since the late 1970s by virtue of the computer he developed and marketed with Steve Wozniak, and the cult of Apple was already in full bloom at the time of the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, Jobs didn’t fashion himself the maximum leader of the cult until he returned to the company in 1996.

Jobs’s restoration was read by his followers as a resurrection, and he encouraged this interpretation by using his regained powers as Apple’s guru to further mesh his identity with that of the company’s products. Jobs became his Macs and iPods and they became him. By and large, they were pretty good products, if not a little pricey. (Ask me, I’ve owned a few.)

What Jobs understood was that there was and is room in the computer market for a prettier or marginally better product—packed tightly in a very fashionable box—that could be sold at a premium price if he marketed them as “Veblen goods,” luxury products that convey status upon their purchasers. Jobs hasn’t been alone in this discovery. Take the modern American kitchen. It has become our most densely populated Veblen-goods petting zoo, with its Viking six-burner range with griddle and double oven, its Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer, its Bosch silent dishwasher, and its MoMA tea kettle. The modern kitchen appliance signals the high status of its owner to friends and neighbors, and so do Apple’s products. When Appleheads visit your home or office and see your iMac or MacBook Air, you can see the Oh, you’re one of us! thought bubble forming over their heads. Conversely, these folks emit a palpable sense of disappointment if catch you with a Dell or a Toshiba. But you seemed so creative! You can observe this sort of messaging on the subway, too, as Apple owners steal glances at one another, bonding wordlessly as they pinch and flick their way through their iPhones and iPads.

Becoming a loved brand wasn’t easy for Apple. Given the automatic hatred the creative class (or those who think of themselves part of the creative class) has for corporations, Apple and Jobs should have been targets of scorn. What he and Apple had going for them at the beginning was their underdog position against IBM and then Microsoft. Apple wisely projected itself as the alt-computer company, a distinction Jobs cemented with the 1984 Super Bowl commercial. Just using Apple products was supposed to be an act of rebellion against the system.

After the Jobs resurrection, he made sure that salvation came with every purchase. For what are Apple Stores but places of worship, with priests who possess secret knowledge manning a Genius Bar at the far end of the temple? Is the Apple logo on the wall not a late-20th century cross? Is every Apple employee toting a handheld credit-card scanner not a human tithing-station? You laugh, but I can’t tell you how many Sundays I’ve gone to my neighborhood Apple Store to renew my faith, and to indoctrinate my children in its fundamentals.

Jobs’s flirtations with Eastern philosophy give credence to my interpretation, as does the energy he spent playing the role of the infallible leader. Jobs told his customers, point blank, that if they wanted his products and services, they’d have to use them the way he delivered them. Just as the pope doesn’t let anybody take a bath in holy water, Jobs wasn’t about to allow anybody to jailbreak an iPhone without at least risking excommunication.

Evidence of Jobs’s psychological hammerlock on the culture can be found in today’s news stories about his life and times, which quote heavily and without caustic comment from his speeches and interviews. These quotations would be ridiculed as Khalil Gibranian nonsense if spoken by anybody else. “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become,” Jobs has said. And, “I want to put a ding in the universe.” And, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” And, “You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” And, “There is no reason not to follow your heart.” And, “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent.”

I predict a quickie book, The Eternal Wisdom of Steve Jobs, in stores and e-book shops soon.

The doublethink of the Apple slogan “Think Different,” revealed Apple as an oddly totalitarian organization (no, you can’t change your own battery in your iPhone). What the company has always wanted its followers—I mean, its customers—to do was think like Jobs. Follow your bliss! But do it inside Steve’s cocoon. That so many customers regarded Jobs and Apple as rebel leaders instead of techno-conformity ringleaders does not flatter human perception.

None of what I’ve written is intended to subtract from the products and services he helped create, his extraordinary business comeback, or his tenacity, all of which I admire. My problem isn’t with Steve Jobs but the sloppy veneration of Steve Jobs. He made computers, pretty good computers. Isn’t that enough?


Charles Arthur shares some pop psychology ideas on why some people love Apple and some people hate it. (I’m in neither group.) Use your Mac to send hate mail to and your iPhone to monitor my Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

Photo: Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs gives a wave at the conclusion of the launch of the iPad 2 on stage during an Apple event in San Francisco, California March 2, 2011. Jobs took the stage to a standing ovation on Wednesday, returning to the spotlight after a brief medical absence to unveil the second version of the iPad. REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach


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Finally some words of reason. Happy to see others can look beyond your MAC’s screen to see things as they are.

I’m tired of hearing how wonderful this guy was- It’s not 1984 anymore, it’s 2011 and everyone in the hall is wearing a black mock turtleneck and has their white ear-pods in place while hailing Steve Jobs on the big screen. He created exactly that about which he warned.

Great article. Thanks.

Posted by lsismor | Report as abusive

“prettier or marginally better product—packed tightly in a very fashionable box”

Marginally better? Are we jealous?
I’ve done freelance computer consulting for over 15 years. Every time I help a user switch from Windows to Mac, I know I won’t be seeing nearly as much of that client. That’s not because the Mac is prettier or marginally better or more expensive. Rather it’s because the mac is significantly better. From design to support. I’ve never had a client switch from mac to windows. (Many of my clients are seniors on fixed incomes for whom I work pro bono. They’re just happy to have an almost completely trouble-free experience.)

Posted by delugg | Report as abusive

Really? What was the point of this article?
Seems that no matter how GOOD Apple gets, you are STILL FREE to buy a PC. So why all the bitching?
You morons have bad taste.

Posted by MikeWV | Report as abusive

What the author fails to comprehend is that it is the essence of all life.

It is called LOVE.

And it is precisely what modern western democracy destroys.

It is 2011 and 1984 is new and improved and superseded.

Steve allowed the unconscious democratic amalgam to experience the transcendental.

The author enumerates several high end brands which also pride themselves on
exquisite and superlative products.

Unfortunately, in modern consumerist democracy, Love, has become the exclusive domain of the rich.

Ferrari and Apple are closer to Love and God than Toyota and Ikea are.

Posted by N20 | Report as abusive

Thanks Jack wonderful article. I’ve been struggling to put exactly the points you’ve made in discussions with friends and colleagues, now I’ll just forward your article to all those I failed to convey my points to. Thanks once again.

Posted by Vidya3049 | Report as abusive

auter? salvation? verben? late 20th century cross?

Hyperbole creep.

Otherwise an entirely predictable article from an under achieving curmudgeon.

Posted by hillarybgawn | Report as abusive

The point is missed here. As someone who worked on nearly every computer platform since 1980, I can attest to why people revere Jobs as an icon of computer magic. While the VAXes and large UNIX boxes were sitting emitting heat in large cooled rooms that had their own priests and priestesses who controlled them, the mac emerged as a computer that could do much of what they did, and for free. I worked along side a UNIVAC running a STRUDYL (sp.) that costs thousands of dollars, and required a team to run it. Along came the PC and the MAC, and although it took a week to run, it was free.

And as time went on, people spent millions of dollars of WYSIWIG software and the hardware to display it while the mac already had it. I converted to a MAC person when the first IMAC came along running OSX. Suddenly as both a user and administrator, I had a machine that made sense, and didn’t result in the blue screen hell that came along with running Windows. So perhaps you get a clue why there are people out there who simply worshipped a guy who made their life easier. I wouldn’t go so far as to build a shrine to him, but what he does deserve is deep respect for building a high set of standards for simplicity in design and function that has outdone nearly every computer built to this date, and has companies bending over backwards to try and copy him. They weren’t there doing it when he came out with his innovative NEXT box, but they should have been.

There has always been a jealousy out there for innovators like Jobs who knew that complex things could be made simplistic. We live in political environment now that cries out for leaders who can take the twisted carnage of big government and make sense of what we really need. If only we had some way of taking Washington through a political version of Jobs who could envision something that works; doesn’t shut down on its own; is worth bragging about; and could make the anticipation of voting like waiting in line for a new IPAD.

Posted by Archivist | Report as abusive

spot on!

Posted by markhahn | Report as abusive


You were a crank at Slate…now you are THE crank at Reuters. Jobs has died – way too easy a target for even you to take on. Have you no soul? Are you that jealous of Jobs’ success, talent and fame?

Wow! Who will you reveal next…Mother Teresa?

Posted by OlivesDad | Report as abusive

Wow! It reminds me of when JFK died. Some people made the same kind of comments
to the reaction of the general population’s reaction to the death of JFK.

I chalked – it up to some sort of weird enviousness personality trait venting.

Posted by skeletor1 | Report as abusive

Apple is so funny to me sometimes. They bend over backwards to provide amazing customer service (applecare etc.) yet when it comes to something like giving customers the option to remove the battery from their iphone it’s a definite “Why are you even asking that question (dumbass)” type of response.

I love their computers which I will continue to buy but when it comes to their phones they seem to have everything backwards. I do think the made a mistake to let Steve Jobs have so much of the lime light. He died and the stock went down (sure it’ll go back up), but people really miss him. Companies like BMW don’t seem to have this problem. Google as well. They have a joint group of people running the show and yet they still continue to make amazing products with the customer not really knowing wit

Posted by Mustachio | Report as abusive

‘My problem isn’t with Steve Jobs but the sloppy veneration of Steve Jobs. He made computers, pretty good computers. Isn’t that enough?’

Well, I suppose you are asking for balance. Visiting the Apple store on Saturday, a timing coincidence for me, there was nothing unusual going on. Maybe I’m missing some fawning somewhere.

IMO, he did more than make ‘pretty good computers’ : he was one of the greatest Industrial Designers.

Signed from the UK:

Posted by eachtohisown | Report as abusive

An excellent article. The popular comparisons of Steve Jobs with Edison and Ford are off the mark. Apple and Jobs aren’t inventors, they didn’t invent mobile phones, or the internet, or digital music, or even GUI’s. Jobs has been a superb enabler, identifying the means of selling computers to the mainly computer-illiterate broad market. Image, wizardly sales intros, secrecy, beautiful graphics, simple intuitive interfaces, and above all, “it just works”. In fact, when the fruit-flavored iMacs first appeared…lime, blueberry, raspberry…professional computer users were generally appalled, figuring Apple was switching to computer-lite aimed at teenagers. That had Apple scrambling to dress their professional desktops in sleek steel grey or dull blue in order to avoid losing the pro market.

The issue of Apple’s tight control has more dimensions than might be apparent. This is a time of democratization of digital products and the internet, as exemplified by open source software, trade alliances, and online music. But if you’re prime concern is for products that “just work”, this is a big problem. Look at the Microsoft ecosystem for examples of incompatible 3rd party software, hardware, and drivers. No question that it raises philosophical issues, but if you invest the time and resources to make well designed, well-tested gear, then proprietary and tight control wins out over open standards.

Posted by robbi | Report as abusive

Strange comments from one who says he likes and uses Apple computers & gadgets. Steve’s company did not make “pretty good computers.” His company made the Absolute Best Computers on the Planet! And I do NOT say that as a ‘fanboy’ who’s taken in by any cult or whatever you are alluding to. I say that as an objective observer of what actually happened. I bought my first Mac – a Mac Plus in 1986. At that time if you went into a computer store you could buy a worthless piece of junk that you could do nothing with unless you were a programmer (and I did not want to waste months to years learning how to program in DOS or whatever), or you could go into an Apple outlet (they didn’t have their own stores then) and buy one you could take home and immediately open up documents in, do typing, print out letters, design cool birthday cards, design professional business cards, design packaging, etc., etc. I loved playing with the “Paint” program and other things on the MacPlus.
I also liked that it was not only WAY WAY more functional than a PC at that time, but that you could get it with 1 megabyte of RAM when PC’s only had 640 kilobytes, and it’s floppy disks had 800 kb of storage while PC’s only had about half of that.

Then many years later, after Windows had stolen everything it knew from Apple (but could not steal everything they had), Bill Gates honestly admitted in an interview with either MacWorld or PC Magazine that the Apple Macintosh was two years ahead of the PC in it’s graphic capabilities and he didn’t see how they could catch up. I thought that was nice of him to be honest about that, and especially in the world of fast moving computer technology, to concede such a disadvantage.

Now, if you think your computer is two years ahead of the herd of other computers, you may think you have the best computer on the planet, and you’d be right (in the consumer dept., I’m not counting the military’s supercomputers, etc.). So, please don’t say ridiculous things like “pretty good computers” when they lead the world in a different direction. If you want to criticize him, at least do it for something real. Like his poor grammar, such as: “Think Different.” that crap may have instilled poor grammar in millions of people. The correct way to say that is: “Think Differently.”

Then there’s you apparently very poor understanding of world literature! Making Khalil Gibran sound like he’s made trivial and surface oriented pop comments, when he has made some of the most profound and loving and moving statement in World Literature and Poetry even made by anyone in the human race. I’ve known several people who use quotes from him for weddings, and I’m pretty sure they don’t consider those events to be trivial in any way!

AND it is True that you should trust your heart and not let anyone else’s doubting your vision stop you from pursuing it!

Posted by FriendofEarth | Report as abusive

“He made computers, pretty good computers. Isn’t that enough?’” Apple made phones, music players, tablets, and computers that were (are) innovation icons, brand them in a way no one could possibly get close to, sold a lot with great margin, and made Apple the most valuable company in the world (in terms of market capitalization) – and there was a time when Apple was almost out of business. So… no, it isn’t enough, it’s not just about “good products”, this is one of the results (products, like the word says) but there’s much going on behind “products” to be taken for granted – like passion, like choosing the right people to work with him, like vision, like having the guts to make bold decisions, among other important aspects of his approach to business.

There’s some kind of non-sense worship, I agree, but I wouldn’t account this as the majority of Apple customers. I do agree there’s a “status” thing about Apple products (huge), and also a fan thing, identification, etc. Like there’s for other brands like Harley-Davidson, Ferraris, Fender Guitars, and so on. But that’s being human, it’s normal, when you have something remarkable and you find other people that share the same taste, you bound together… so what?

The only product I bought from Apple was an iPod some years ago – reason: I think Apple products in general are too expensive. My cell phones: Sony, always (K790, and Xperia Neo few months ago). Lap-top: gimme an old-tank IBM Thinkpad with Linux Mint and I’m fine! Music player? Cell phone. So… I like to have control over my devices, I like the freedom concept of Android, and I don’t like to spend a lot of money. But I have to recognize that SJ had a broader effect in this world than just “making good products” (for good and for bad!).

Some people choose, take risks, have strong opinions, have courage to make bold decisions, are passionate about what they do, and make a difference in the world – that’s SJ. I look forward to learn a lot with the biographies and articles about his life – it’s an important reference to me.

Posted by michel_behr | Report as abusive

Both Apple & BMW are over hyped!!!

Posted by wallynm | Report as abusive

I think you’re right. I was thinking Apple doesn’t have users, but fans. Followers, or disciples, might be a better description.

Let’s face it, the phones are over priced and not the best.

The MP3 payers are priced out of all proportion to what they do, and don’t do anything special

The computers are overpriced and lack a very important piece of functionality. Compatibility.

As for tablets, they have a lead there. For now. I predict Apple will go the same way as it did in the late 80s, to the edge of oblivion. Perhaps beyond.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

I am disgusted that I read this entire article. You are blind Jack Shafer

Posted by srome11 | Report as abusive

A feeling, a sentiment, an expression, an experience.
These are beyond the artifacts of cold, clinical, and sterile descriptors.
Quintessential Steve Jobs.

Posted by vueidea | Report as abusive

Actually, I can recall that there were similar cults surrounding Microsoft and IBM at one time. So ‘Steve’ may not be completely at fault for his followers semi-religious devotion to his company and products. It is merely a part of the cultural landscape of electronics and branding.

What the writer indirectly disparages is the excitement of new electronic gadgets and how they capture the electronics consumer’s imagination. I myself would never line-up in the wee hours of the morning to get the latest wonder of technology, but if people feel it is that important to them, then that is their choice.

I do agree that some people displayed a smug superiority in using an Apple laptop, especially in public. This was the dark side of the ‘cool’ factor.

However, the comments about ‘follow your bliss inside Steve’s cocoon’ are unfair. No-one forced anyone to buy an i-phone; I never bought one. Though I have bought a few Apple computers over the past 20 years, I don’t even blink at the idea of using non-Apple peripherals. I am sure there are many of a similar bent.

As for ‘Steve’ himself, he was a pain in the a**, but by God I am going to miss him.

Posted by rwmccoy | Report as abusive

Mr. Shafer, I’m sure you may feel that Apple products are, in your words, “pricey”. Many people have used that same tired argument to brush away the fact they don’t own one or, own one in spite of the fact they are “epricey”.

The fact is that superior products do cost more to design, engineer and produce.. Would you say the same thing about buying anything else? Take for example, a car. What’s the difference between a Hyundai and a Mercedes, or even a Honda? They are all cars, They get you from point A to point B equally. Are you willing to pay extra for the differences between them?

As a designer, I am more than willing to pay extra to have my computer startup every morning, do what I need it to do and be able to NOT worry that it won’t start, or freeze, or have to call a technician in to fix it.

I have one thing to say to those that think Apple products are overpriced. Don’t buy or use them. It’s simple. If you don’t like the iPod, get a Zune or the many different MP3 players out there. If you feel the computers are overpriced, you don’t need to buy them. But stop bitching about how overpriced they are. I don;t expect you to pay for them. I have had to use both Apple and windows-based systems. I can tell you from past experience, I will gladly pay the couple of hundred more for a Mac over any other computer just for the fact that my Mac is an appliance, it starts when I want it to, does what I need it to do and I don’t have to mess with it unless I want to. I don’t need to be MCSE certified to configure it to get online and I don;t need to call anybody because I have the blue screen of death or the DLL whatchajiggy is missing.

So, there’s a price to be paid for design. I’m willing to pay for it. is you would rather not, then use Windows.

Posted by IAMDAN | Report as abusive