Stop Exploiting Steve Jobs


Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski tries to explain why we all mourned Steve Jobs's death.
Dr. Andrew K. Przybylski tries to explain why we all mourned Steve Jobs's death.

Apple founder Steve Jobs died more than seven months ago. All kinds of people are lining up to hijack his memory for their own purposes. It’s time to stop.

One way that people are doing this is digging up and publicizing “lost” tape.

For example, old Apple corporate videos, created to fire up sales people at conferences and meetings long forgotten, are suddenly appearing. One video shows Jobs portraying FDR rallying the troops against the menace of IBM. Another shows Jobs acting in a Ghostbusters-themed video.

And “lost” interviews with Jobs are popping up and being exploited. Magnolia Pictures is distributing a 70-minute “lost” interview with Jobs in movie theaters in 19 cities. Another interview, touted as lessons learned from Jobs’ so-called “wilderness years,” is also making the rounds.

Jobs’ comments on various things are being referenced in the service of banal punditry. His statements, for example, are being used to predict that Apple won’t ship a 7-inch iPad because Jobs said he hated the idea. (Yeah, right. He also said nobody reads anymore. That was just a few years before he launched a long-term initiative to take over the publishing industry.)

And Jobs’ career is used and abused to validate advice about management and product design.

One widely mis-represented quote by Jobs, who himself was paraphrasing Picasso, went something like this: “Good artists borrow; great artists steal.” (By “copying,” Jobs and Picasso meant going through the motions to ape something without fully understanding it. By “stealing,” they meant fully understanding and “living” an influence, and making it part of who you are as an artist.)

Another thing that happens to great artists is that the value of their work suddenly goes up when they die. And that’s what has happened to the trade in Steve Jobs-generated ideas and content.

As in the art world, Jobs’ untimely death has created a speculative bubble in all things Jobs. That’s the only reason this stuff is emerging.

None of this content was “lost.” The guy was a CEO. He did things that CEOs do. He made sales videos. He granted interviews with the press. All this was recorded. And it’s been sitting around ignored for years because it didn’t have any value.

When Steve Jobs died, some people sensed a shameless once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get money or attention from bringing these recordings out.

I have three problems with participation in the exploitation of Steve Jobs:

1. It’s out of context

Jobs tended to say things that were right for the moment, that were expedient and helpful to whatever his objectives were at the time.

Those goofy videos were meant for a specific and very small group of people for a very narrow purpose.

For the second half of his career, Jobs was very disciplined in what he said publicly, and why. Comments in an interview, now consumed posthumously as the man’s “beliefs,” were often narrowly constructed to promote developer acceptance of a platform or consumer acceptance of a product or to create FUD about a competitor.

If we want to learn something from and about Steve Jobs, we should learn about contextualizing communication.

2. It’s tasteless

The death of Steve Jobs was tragic. He was at the top of his game, the pinnacle of his life. For so many people to come out of the woodwork to exploit his name, and less than one year after his death, is tawdry and shameless.

If we want to learn something from the life of Steve Jobs, we should try to avoid bad taste.

3. It’s unfair 

Jobs was remarkable in part because he never stopped evolving. He always kept growing as a CEO, a technology visionary, a leader, a family man and a human being. To reach into the past and highlight and surface old content is unfair to the man he became.

Jobs was always an interesting person. But the very best Jobs was the final one, the person he became in the last years of his life. If we want to learn from Steve Jobs, let’s learn from the man he evolved to, not the man he evolved from.

Enough with the “lost” corporate videos, interviews and the shameless exploitation of Steve Jobs.

There’s so much to be learned from the life of Steve Jobs. But publishing out-of-context, tasteless and unfair material from the past is nothing more than a demonstration that we haven’t learned.

If we want to learn from and be more like Steve Jobs, let’s reinvent the future, not dwell on the past.

(Image painted by Richard Davies.)