On the Impact of Steve Jobs’ Too-Short Life

I remember this night in 1980, standing in the front hallway of my family home in Toronto’s West End.

My mom and her best friend, “Aunty” Katherine, were weeping inconsolably in one another’s arms.

Their husbands stood by watching them uncomfortably.

Me, my sisters, and our faux-cousins were wide-eyed with shock.

We’d seen good-byes between the two before, but this was over the top.

It was winter. There was snow outside.

When they finally parted, literally torn apart by the men, my mom gave something to Katherine.

It was her copy of an LP: John Lennon and Yoko Ono’ Double Fantasy.

The crying began anew as Katherine, almost without strength, was lead from the house and my mom disappeared upstairs.

I stood alone in the living room and watched out the window as Katherine and her family drove away.

There was an emotional resonance in the room that I didn’t understand.

Years later I learned about the murder of John Lennon, which had happened some time just before that night.

This was after I’d learned about the Beatles, and how my mom and Katherine had grown up together listening to them.

I heard stories about the two chasing the Beatles together at the Toronto Airport.

Over time I pieced together a realization of how the music of the Beatles was a thread in the fabric of life that existed between my mom and Katherine even as time and distance kept the two friends apart.

So when Lennon was suddenly gunned down, it was as thought a piece of that fabric had sheared away.

But what was lost was not just a part of the way they related to one another, but also an aspect of the way they self-identified and identified with the world around them.

Still, I’ve wondered about that night the two wept for Lennon many times over the years, about the strong emotional response they had to the death of someone who essentially was a stranger.

I sort of understood it, but I didn’t totally get it.

It only finally made sense last week when Steve Jobs died.

I learned about the loss as my son was climbing into the bath with an armful of Lego.

I was checking Twitter, saw all the messages, and assumed a hoax.

Then I checked Apple’s home page on my iPhone and my legs buckled under me.

As tears flooded my eyes and I sat down on the bathroom floor, my son looked at me in the same way I must have watched my mom and Aunty Katherine years ago.

“Why are you crying, Daddy?” he asked.

“The man who makes iPhones and iPads died,” was the best I could manage.

He looked at me plainly, then asked, “what are we gonna do now?”

What indeed, son.

Jobs’ impact on not just technology, but culture, media, and society in general is hard to comprehend, much less measure.

And while I now understand the emotional impact of Lennon’s death as a result of his musical impact on the world, the loss of Jobs goes far beyond that.

Certainly, a piece of the fabric of my life has been torn away by his death. But through his short life’s work, Jobs affected all of us more fundamentally even than that.

He changed the way we do things every day, many times a day.

Every time any one of us lays a hand on a mouse, it’s because of him.

When we interact with pictures on a screen, it’s thanks to him.

General, widespread access to handheld computers is a result of his efforts.

That virtually everyone now owns a personal computer of some sort is attributable to Jobs.

But it’s not just about the way we interact with technology and buy music, or the devices we use.

It’s the entire spinoff effect of the revolution in personal computing that he affected until his death. It’s the way he changed the media landscape.

The ease with which we buy music online, he made it possible.

That we can watch a TV show or movie from any device, anywhere, any time, is thanks largely to Jobs.

Heck, even Buzz Lightyear is a direct result of his personal vision. (He salvaged a little animation studio that became Pixar from a disinterested George Lucas.)

And these are just a few, generalized examples.

It’s fair to say, though, that Jobs didn’t invent many of the technologies he’s know for.

No, more importantly, he made them happen. He seized them out of the lab and launched them into the world at large. And almost everything he set free became iconic and fundamental parts of our lives.

While my mom and Katherine connected with Lennon through music, every day we each are touched by Jobs when we interact with a smart phone or double-click a picture on a screen or buy a song online.

He made technology not only approachable, but loveable and alive. And he altered our perception of what it means to be a technology user and media consumer. To borrow one of his terms, he made our lives magical.

So when I learned of his death, my emotional response wasn’t just about the loss of a great person (and great he was). I cried for the realization that the magical ride he’s taken us all on is over.

With the death of Jobs, not only technology but culture has stalled. We’re a boat on the ocean and our engine just died, the wind has disappeared from our sails.

Steve Jobs is one of the single most influential people in modern history. He has had a direct impact on not only technology use, but our society and culture.

It’s absolutely impossible to understate his influence and impact, and I don’t think we are capable of quite comprehending it yet.

Unfortunately, his contributions are the result of tireless efforts. He was a human being operating well beyond his natural capacity.

There’s that famous line from Blade Runner: “The candle that burns twice as bright, burns half as long.”

It’s derived from Edna St. Vincent Millay’s 1920 poem, A Few Figs from Thistles, that reads: “My candle burns at both ends;/It will not last the night;/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends – /It gives a lovely light.”

And, indeed, Steve Jobs gave a lovely light indeed, perhaps the loveliest we’ve seen. And, like John Lennon, he burned not nearly as long as he should.

Now midnight is upon us and the darkness settles in. Who’s going to lead us to the morning?

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 13, 2011.