Monday, 14 November 2011

Steve Jobs - The Final Irony

By Jon Underwood

Apparently, Steve Jobs was able to use a ‘reality distortion field’. His superhuman charisma enabled him to convince people that the impossible was actually possible. Perhaps that made his recent death more shocking. Death is a reality that even he was unable to distort.

Our global outpouring in response to his death seemed so genuinely emotional. Initial reactions conveyed surprise that he had actually gone ahead and died. Damn you death you’ve crept up on us once again! Its not like he was ill or anything. But obviously we don’t expect our Titans to die.

This is particularly ironic because Steve Jobs was unusually vocal about death. In his famous address to the peachy-faced graduates of Stanford he states “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it.”

It seems that Jobs’ understanding of death was unusually deep. In the same speech he said that “Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.” These seem to be the words of a man able to face death without fear, to use existential angst as a force for personal reinvention. The words of a wise man.

In a world where death is often shoved into the shadows this focus on death is certainly exceptional. The words bear repeating - and repeated they have been. Steve Jobs’ words on death have flooded the internet in the weeks after he died.

In fact Steve Jobs in general seemed to flood everything in the weeks after he died. Real people had their say first of all and it was clear lots of us loved him, and a fair few of us hated him.  But then the commentators got started and they never seemed to stop. First it was hagiography - an idealised vision of the man and gushing praise for his achievements. The backlash was quick to follow with many articles critical of his character, business practices and impact on the world. Then the meta-commentary started. Why, people asked, are we so hung up on Steve Jobs?

But in all these words I haven’t seen one piece that focuses on what Steve said about death. Why not? Steve Jobs sells and the books about him are already hitting the shelves in time for Christmas. I would have thought that there would be, at the very least, massive comedy potential there. But people don’t even seem to have managed any good jokes about his death. Believe me I’ve looked for them. If you’ve got them please post them up. The one fantastic exception was this series of tweets by the genius that is Alan Partridge:

It seems that no one wants to talk about death. So what? It’s depressing. Its not like we need to get real about stuff and fundamentally reassess our values or anything. The economy is doing OK after all. I’m not worried about all these goggle-eyed politicians getting sweaty on the news. And yeah, it’s fine to live on a planet where a few people have it all and won’t share. We’re doing fine…

Grow up. We. Cannot. Go. On. Like. This.

Lets be honest - we’re going to have to get used to having less stuff not more. Most of us are going to be taking the journey through life in economy class. But the engine of our society is a relentless drive to acquire. Could this ever change? Our situation means that it has to. Actions such as occupy show that there’s a wish to. But how can we move forward positively?

Don’t worry. Steve Jobs has some words of wisdom:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

When death is confronted fear dies. Fear is the driving force behind our desire to acquire. So thinking about death has the potential to throw a grenade down the throat of consumer capitalism. It is the final irony that the primary advocate for this way of thinking is worlds most famous CEO and purveyor of aspirational tech-trinkets.


  1. Good article - BBC4 did a show on Jobs that included his thoughts on death. Can't remember the date exactly, but if you search for it on the days after Steve's death you might find it. They played a recording of a chunk of that Stanford speech.

  2. That's a fine article, McDeath Freak - love the way you make links between big things and help us understand how healing it will be when we are willing to embrace death as part of life, rather than its opposite.


Say your piece.