THE BLOG
11/03/2011 12:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 03, 2012

What Steve Jobs Teaches Us About Ourselves

So much has been written about the death of the principal American industrialist of the last half century, Steve Jobs, that it seems little more can be said; The encomiums have been stirring, emotional and impassioned, comparable only perhaps to those that attended the passing of Thomas Edison. There is no question that Jobs moved people in a way that is rare. The question is the lessons we can draw from the grief over his death and what it teaches us about ourselves as Americans.

One certainty is the way Jobs was a living embodiment of an American cultural idea. In a landmark article in the journal, Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the authors cite a distinctive cultural category -- Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic (the humorous acronym is WEIRD) population -- which may as well be a synonym for the American personality.

WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic

Most of us reading the Huffington Post and actively combing the internet would fall under this rubric and the description of this type is illuminating. We have an independent self-concept, a positively biased view of ourselves, a heightened valuation of our choices and a motivation to stand out. In fact, the article states, Americans are more motivated if we can exercise choice (something that anthropologists contrast with certain Asian cultures like the one where I was raised, for example). In every facet of this profile, Steve Jobs was the apotheosis of the American ethos. He displayed the notion of human agency and the idea that we can effect profound change in our environment. The Industrial Revolution valorized people like James Watts and Eli Whitney because it proved the principle of the Enlightenment -- that men and women could rule nature through reason. And Jobs is the latest in that unbroken line (or so it seems right now).

But the world is filled with ingenuity and innovation, you may say. What made Jobs the Promethean figure he was? Unlike most captains of industry, his life story was moving and his effect was singular and unsteadying. At his famous Stanford commencement address, he appeared not larger than life or gnomic but still like an interloper and an outlier. His voice had registers of anxiety and indignation (including shots at Microsoft) and tremors of insecurity that derived from a background of poverty and rejection by his biological parents. In Jobs, you see the classic American positioning in the face of pedigree, tradition, fixity and social class. He took on the old order with the power of his imagination and his fearlessness and the pluck that define the American self-concept.

And his legacy is singular because his products are part of our quotidian lives. The iPhone and iPad and iPod have become extensions of our bodies (articulated beautifully by Megan O'Rourke in a blog on the New Yorker site), "we all participate in the world Jobs created. Without him in it, there's less of us, too" she writes. His devices, with their shimmering neutrality, have come to define qualities of our temporal experience. We organize our time around the taps of the iPhone to check mail or the rotate and stretch and contrast of the iPad image. And our visual field is now different, carrying the shapes and color pixels, the soft sheen of titanium and the glow of portable screens. The geometry of Jobs' products evoked intelligence and curiosity and elegance without losing its organic purity -- like a Richard Serra sculpture we could hold in our hands. We cannot underestimate how much of our lived experience is affected by Steve Jobs. That may be good or bad but there is no doubt that the personal valence of grief around his death comes because of the talismanic power of his gadgets.

History will account for the impact of this man for a while, I suspect. But, in his life, is a mirror that reflects back at us. As O'Rourke puts it, "Not every celebrity death elicits such an outcry: one wagers that this is only the death of those people whom we see something of ourselves."