Last night I heard the news that Steve Jobs had died just a few minutes after apple.com posted the announcement on their website. His death was not unexpected but I was still struck by it. For me, as for many other people who grew up in a world without personal computers and who were involved (in a far more tangential way than Jobs) in their development and popularization, this man I never met was vividly real to me. I am very aware of the impact that Jobs had on the development of much of the technology we now depend in the western world.
Almost as soon as Jobs' death was officially announced the responses poured in from people who ranged from customers, to co-workers to politicians. His death was not a surprise and I imagine that many of the formal responses to the announcement had been drafted weeks ago when it became clear that his health had taken a turn for the worse.
One of the constant claims/statements/arguments across the many expressions of sympathy was that virtually everyone in the world had been touched by Jobs. And that claim led to me think "how" and ask "for the better?" I have no doubt that the lives of those in the Horn of Africa, in Darfur and in Myanmar have been touched by the information revolution if we stretch "touched" to include "the individuals who hound the poor and prey on the weak have been known to use new technologies in order to perpetuate their power." I have no doubt that the lives of those in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Iraq have been touched by the computer revolution if we stretch "touched" to include "they are now being killed in ways that would not have been possible without the computer revolution." And it is important to remember that not everyone who has been more directly "touched" by Jobs and Apple would describe the result as "for the better." The workers in Taiwan who committed suicide after enduring the working conditions in IPhone assembly plants would probably not have characterized they way in which their lives were "touched" as for the better.
I am not arguing that Jobs was a bad person. However I do think that we should take care not to universalize from the nature of his impact on the lives of comparatively privileged people to the impact it had on humanity in general. I do know that Jobs was a charismatic individual who could sweep a room of tech reporters off their metaphorical feet. I don't know that Jobs ever sat down and thought about what his wealth could do beyond "make more money" and "create more gadgets that he would like to play with."
Bill Gates was never Steve Jobs equal in terms of charisma. One seldom hears of Gates "wowing" a room of reporters. And Microsoft in its time has resorted to some extremely questionable business practices. But so too did Apple. Bill Gates has spent over a decade giving away much of the money that he made while he, too, was changing the world. We have not heard of Jobs doing anything similar.
Today there are people in the world who are safer, less hungry, healthier, more educated and have more hope for the future because Bill Gates has decided to work almost as hard at giving away his money as he once worked at making it.
Steve Jobs made life more fun, interesting and easier for that portion of the world that already enjoyed the most privilege and the greatest likelihood of having safe, interesting and comfortable lives. It would be nice to find out that Jobs decided that in death he would attempt to compete with Gates on the field of philanthropy just as in life he competed with Gates on the field of technology.