When I heard about Steve Jobs’ resignation as Apple’s CEO on Wednesday afternoon I mentioned casually to a friend my assessment that “he’s probably the most influential human being of the past one hundred years.”
My friend laughed and said, “no way, you really think so?”
I challenged him to come up with someone more influential–and after a couple of minutes we agreed that Jobs’ influence on the course of human affairs has been something on the order of magnitude of Thomas Edison’s.
Another friend later ventured the opinion that the Dalai Lama or perhaps Adolph Hitler, or maybe Freud or Carl Jung had been more influential than Steve Jobs–but after having had more time to think about it, I’m sticking to my guns: in the past one hundred years, no single human being has had a greater influence on the way humans behave than Steve Jobs.
It’s interesting that my friend Ian and I settled on Edison as a figure of comparable impact because Jobs’ influence built upon some of the major inventions and innovations set in motion by Edison himself nearly a century before Jobs got his start in that famous garage with Steve Wozniak.
In particular, Edison’s phonograph eventually gave way to the portable digital music player known as the iPod; Edison’s influences on mass communications (in general) and telecommunications (in particular) were transformed forever in 2007 by the iPhone.
But it was really his first innovation–and his vision of what it could mean for people–that sealed Jobs’ place in history.
Perhaps the personal computer would have come along anyway, had Jobs and Wozniak not built the Apple I, but now, at the end of his career, it’s impossible to deny that Jobs’ vision influenced both the functionality and design of the whole segment of technology known as personal computers.
It’s impossible, too, to deny that personal computers have influenced the course of human affairs more than any other invention of the past one hundred years.
But Steve Jobs didn’t invent anything, some will say; he’s just a marketer. To which I say therein lies the genius of his influence.
As the thinking and philosophies of Freud and Jung led to understanding of human behavior and thence to the formation of modern marketing practices, so did Jobs’ own understanding of human behavior and his foresight into the potential impact of the things his engineers built underlie his influence on all of mankind.
Rarely is it possible in the course of human affairs to know–or to articulate–the true impact of any one person or any one event. As Steve Jobs begins his ride into the sunset of history, however, one is hard pressed to name anyone since Edison who’s put a greater ding in the universe.