As I guess pretty much everyone in the Developed World is aware, Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc., died this week. There was an outpouring of grief from the IT community—both workers and users—recorded on FaceBook, Twitter, and elsewhere. There was also a certain amount of critique of the gentleman and his legacy, surprisingly enough. WaPo and Gawker were rather critical of the person. There was an article in the German current events mag, Der Spiegel, that was really more an indictment of American culture and the Deification of Jobs, as demonstrated by the FaceBook memorial wave, and the concept of the Jobs’ “legacy.” I find all of this a bit surprising, the type of negativity usually reserved for the obituaries of Third World dictators or unrepentant criminal sociopaths. Steve Jobs may not have been the easiest person to work for, and I agree that his technology was more toy than printing press, but he wasn’t exactly Ted Bundy.
My reaction to Mr. Jobs passing was likely a minority response, maybe even singular (although I doubt it). What struck me about Mr. Jobs passing was that he passed. Here is someone who was part of the World economic and cultural elite for the past thirty years, at least. He was raised in a middle class family, in a metropolitan area that is home to the most elite medical research institution in the country, as well as several other elite medical schools, likely had health insurance most of his life, got every imaginable treatment for his condition—including an organ transplant. He was married to the same person for twenty years, had his own children around him to support him, his adopted parents survived to his adulthood (no Dickensian childhood), he always had a roof over his head and food on the table. Had a reputation for being a pretty upstanding, morally hygienic, straight and narrow kinda guy, by and large. And he died at fifty-six.
All that technology, notoriety, access to health care (proximity, funding and the ability to get an appointment), support network, good eating, clean living, etc, and this guy got less time than a lot of people who spend years of their lives in homeless shelters, chronically ill individuals, people with severe disabilities affected since birth. Fifty-six is a lifespan found in unraveled corners of the World with little functioning government ruled by roving bandits and police who are little more than roving bandits. Whoever would have thought twenty years ago that Steve Tyler and Steve Hawking would still be here, and Steve Jobs would be gone?
Which is not to fundamentally dismiss the value of insurance, community access to care, supportive families, or food, clothing and shelter as key elements of personal and community health. Consider this instead, counterpoint to the point, the yang to the yin, the response tune in the dueling banjos. The 2009/10 healthcare debate was characterized by the “vignette.” This [bad] thing happened somewhere to someone, its someone’s fault, represents a failure of “the system”—that’s why we need a federal program. And a particular federal program. A sweeping, all encompassing, clear the table and start over, totally federalize the issue federal program. That tackles the issue “head on!” No backing down, no alternatives! So that no one ever dies. No one ever dies young. (For the record, I’m going to keep eating five servings of dairy a day, a pound of beef a week, in season fruits and vegetables, drinking tea, walking, biking and hoping for the best. It’s called prevention.)
Steve Jobs was diagnosed in 2004 with a form of cancer that is almost always deadly. There are no real “risk behaviors” that “cause” it. It just is. There are a few treatments, and apparently, Mr. Jobs got pretty much all of them. I don’t think there is any indication that any doctors screwed up or denied him anything. If anything, receiving a donor organ at fifty-four with as much health impairment as he already had indicates Hail Mary efforts above and beyond what most people would likely get.
So here is my healthcare vignette:
A highly enfranchised male of Eurpoean and Arabic heritage was raised in a middle class background. In his 20s, he founded his own company—which under federal regulation had to purchase health care for its employees, including him. In his late 40s he was diagnosed with a deadly form of cancer, the origins of which are little understood by the medical community. Through advanced treatments, he beat the odds for a few years. He was active up until his final days and died at the age of fity-six, about twenty years short of the average life expectancy for his generation.
And last, but certainly not least, my memorial to Mr. Jobs:
Mr. Jobs, I never met you; as far as I know, was never even in the same building or ZIP Code as yourself. I have no way of knowing if you were a nice or nasty boss, and it is my opinion that the value of your legacy cannot be evaluated by my generation, maybe not even in my lifetime. Whether or not you were an ideal role model in your personal life to me is irrelevant, for the plain and simple reason that you never broadcast your personal life and as far as I am aware, you never put yourself out as a personal role model. I’ll agree with the Post that there was little publicity of any philanthropy you may have fostered while living—aside from deep discounts for educational interests purchasing your technology—and I haven’t seen your will, so your philanthropic legacy is, again, something that I cannot express an opinion on.
What I do know is you were a person. I think you sincerely believed you were taking technology to the people through Apple and its products. I think your professional image—myth or fact—inspired a lot of people and will continue to do so for decades. My heart goes out to your friends and family, and may we keep alive the dream and reality of American innovation and independent thinking.