Now that Steve Jobs is dead, can we start solving problems that actually matter?

Steve Jobs is a man many of us knew for his incredible showmanship and obsessive attention to detail. His personal life is something we’ll get a better understanding of when his authorized biography hits store shelves later this month. One of the private details of his life that we do know about is that Jobs was a Buddhist. It isn’t known if he believed in the tenet of rebirth that says after you die you’ll come back and live a life that—depending on what you’ve done in your previous life—will either be better or worse than the life you’ve lived before, but assuming he did believe in rebirth, what would a man of Steve Jobs’ caliber born in this century do with his limited time on earth?

After Jobs died I developed an incessant need to read all the stories people had published about their experiences with him or tales they’ve heard about him from trusted sources. One that stood out was Tim Carmody’s article in Wired titled “‘This Stuff Doesn’t Change the World’: Disability and Steve Jobs’ Legacy“. He quotes an interview that Gary Wolf, also from Wired, did with Jobs in 1996. In it he admits that technology matters up to a certain point, but that in the end the cycle of life is what’s most important:

Wired: What’s the biggest surprise this technology will deliver?

Jobs: The problem is I’m older now, I’m 40 years old, and this stuff doesn’t change the world. It really doesn’t.

Wired: That’s going to break people’s hearts.

Jobs: I’m sorry, it’s true. Having children really changes your view on these things. We’re born, we live for a brief instant, and we die. It’s been happening for a long time. Technology is not changing it much — if at all.

These technologies can make life easier, can let us touch people we might not otherwise. You may have a child with a birth defect and be able to get in touch with other parents and support groups, get medical information, the latest experimental drugs. These things can profoundly influence life. I’m not downplaying that. But it’s a disservice to constantly put things in this radical new light — that it’s going to change everything. Things don’t have to change the world to be important.

Another article titled “With Time Running Short, Jobs Managed His Farewells” by Charles Duhigg for The New York Times features a telling quote by the physician Dean Ornish, one of Steve’s friends:

“Steve made choices,” Dr. Ornish said. “I once asked him if he was glad that he had kids, and he said, ‘It’s 10,000 times better than anything I’ve ever done.'”

Think about that the next time you’re with your friends and family and you can’t put your stupid smartphone down to engage in some actual face to face conversation. Earlier this year MG Siegler, formerly of TechCrunch, published an article titled “I Will Check My Phone At Dinner And You Will Deal With It” where he tried to defend checking his iPhone under the table while having dinner with his parents. By the end of that article, I wanted to hurl a barrage of insults at him.

But back to the question at hand, if a man who possessed all of Steve Jobs’ attributes were born today, what would he dedicate his life to? Steve famously asked John Sculley, an adept marketer working at Pepsi who would eventually became the CEO of Apple and then kick Jobs out two years later, whether he wanted to “sell sugar water for the rest of your life or come with me and change the world?”

The shiny toys we all enjoy playing with today, they’re the sugar water of our generation. The services we spend more time using than we care to admit (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are equally just as bad. Ask yourself, if all consumer electronics innovation stopped today, would you be happy using what’s currently the best equipment on the market for the rest of your life? Watching 1080p videos on YouTube is possible, keeping track of friends from your childhood is possible, having an encyclopedia in your pocket is possible, uploading a photo or video from the scene of a breaking event is not only possible, but a simple retweet of that piece of content is how many of us get our news. I bet every iPhone 4 owner had no problem with their device until Apple introduced the iPhone 4S, at which point they felt an illogical need to upgrade just for the sake of upgrading. The product they cherished just a few days prior is now seen as old and antiquated.

Now my apartment is located right across the street from the downtown offices of Helsinki Energy. By their entrance is one of the few charging stations for electric vehicles that exist in Finland. The subtle green LED lighting fixture atop that charging station is the first thing I see when I step outside. Why aren’t there more of those? Why aren’t all cars using electric energy? Why do we treat the people in the countries that have the rare earth metals that are required to be build batteries and other electronic equipment like slaves, just so rich, fat, well to do people in “First World” countries can play Angry Birds on their commute to work?

In less than two weeks I’m going to turn 25. I’m not a fan of birthdays since they force me to reflect upon my life and to take note that I’m one year closer to dying. In Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford Commencement Address, which you can watch here, he said that death is the best way to keep yourself in check, that it should compel you to live the life that you want and no one else’s. He ended his speech with “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” That’s absolutely terrifying advice when you fully understand what it means. I definitely don’t like being hungry, and though I do like to explore new fields where I appear to indeed be a fool, I’m not going to leave this writing gig and all the associated perks that come with it to start attempting to fix the problems that really matter in today’s world, problems like climate change, terrorism, obesity, and even cancer.

The question is are you?

Photo via: Web Designer Depot

Recommended reading: “This Tech Bubble Is Different” by Ashlee Vance for Bloomberg Businessweek. Key quote in that piece that I failed to incorporate in this article is by Jeff Hammerbacher, who left Facebook after he realized:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.”

Indeed it does.

  • You write for a website and your bio kinda contradicts this piece. I rest my case.

    • Did you not read the last paragraph or something where I admit I don’t have the courage to stay hungry, and stay foolish?

    • Vinyl_86

      Someone didn’t read the entire article…tsk tsk.

    • Anonymous

      Stefan, we’re a long shot away from stomping corporate greed, or solving life’s real dilemmas, so let’s start from the bottom and work our way up. “How,” you ask? Let’s start by implementing a five question quiz with a 75% passing grade requirement. People who fail to pass the quiz cannot comment. :p

  • Anonymous

    One of your better articles Stefan

    • feel free to contact me (stefan at the rest should be obvious) and point out what i can do to be even better!

  • roelbeckers

    nice article…

  • Stefan, your writing is getting better and better. Thanks for sharing this piece, good to update our perspectives.

  • Anonymous

    The best thing I’ve read from you, Stefan! Definitely something worth thinking about.

  • Anonymous

    I disagree to a certain extent. Building an iPhone or Facebook is definitely not as important as curing cancer but they both address real problems. Communication is a fundamental human need and making this easier and more accessible is a good thing – look at the Arab Spring for signs of how social media can transcend beyond poking and telling people what you had for lunch. 

    The other argument is that once you make a shit-ton of money, you’re better equipped to handle those real problems. I don’t think anyone would accuse Windows of solving a problem that actually mattered or Berkshire Hathaway being a force for good but a large portion of that money is going to end malaria. Hell, even Zuckerberg has given away more than $100 million to New Jersey schools. 

    More than tech, I think the bigger shame is that much of the American talent pool over the last few has been drawn to the easy money on Wall Street. 

    • Anonymous

      I’m so glad I read this post before clicking submit. I was going to say the same thing.

  • LaserWraith

    Life without God can be quite depressing. :-/

    • Not really. Life without God is great! Look around at all the awesome stuff in this world. You don’t need to worship an invisible man to appreciate the beauty that exists everywhere.

      • LaserWraith

        But then you realize it will all pass away some day, just like the people who made the stuff.

        While there is beauty in the world, it is also flawed: cancer (quite obviously), greed, always wanting more (wow, do things become obsolete quickly).  And then problems we cause in nature (I’m sure you could find an environmentalist who would gladly point out humanity’s failings in that regard, but I take their opinions with a grain of salt).

        I sometimes help the mentally ill, and wonder how many generations will pass before more of us are like them because of genetic mutations.

        Or how long the U.S. will stay free (or even existent).

        Life without God may be great (for some people…), but it’s better with God (especially since I’m naturally a pessimist). 😛

  • Anonymous

    Additionally, it’s not an either or thing. The advances in computing and collaboration can and do have a material impact on these real issues. Now, the question of what we should be focusing and championing is a real one. 

  • TheFixer

    It’s articles like these that make me remember how very young you and your fellow bloggers are.  Your not old enough to really have any life experience (Yeah, I know there are exceptions to every rule, but I’ve read your posts since your Nokia blog… you aren’t the exception), so your interface with all these “Gadgets” and “Stuff” is very raw.  

    You don’t really remember what it’s like to not have “Gadgets”.  I know they have come light years in what they can do, but as long as you can remember, there have been cell phones and mainstream computers.   I read these blogs because I enough reading about the latest technology and I like you have a passion for mobile devices and technology in general.  I make a living supporting people who use these gadgets and computers.  I’d love to write about it all day (I’m just as opinionated as you), but I don’t have time (I’m stealing time to write this,  I should actually be making lunch for the family at the moment).  I work 12-14 hours a day and I love every minute of it.
     With that said…  (and this is where my wife would say “Ok Grandpa”) I’m not trying to start an age flame war, and I only have 10 years on you, but those were the 10 years of transition, from a world of no electronic gadgets, to a world of gadgets.When your a teenager your invincible. When your in your twenties you know everything.  When your in your thirty’s, you realize how little you really know.  Technology is just a tool, not a way of life.The great part about this comment is because your 25, you’ll probably just dismiss this comment, because you know more than me (You are in your twenties…)  The long of the short of this comment is, you need to live a little while longer before you write a piece like this.  I know I sure do.

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