Celebrate Heroes, Not CEOs

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai photo by Martin Rowe

I had a moment of genuine shock when I woke up on Thursday, picked up my iPhone and read the headlines, to discover that Steve Jobs had died. Of course I already knew he was ill and that he was standing down, but the severity of his illness had been kept quiet, meaning that news of his death came to most of us as a surprise. After my Wow moment, I carried on with day as normal. Shock number two came when I logged into Twitter and Facebook to find tributes to Jobs liberally posted. Jobs’ death seemed to have become what we call in the UK a “Diana Moment” – an outbreak of apparently inexplicable mass grief for a personality only known to most through the mass media. People I know who never follow business or technology events were swept up in the tide of tributes. The sayings of Jobs were being shared with the same reverence as quotes from Jesus or Gandhi.

When I went to bed on Wednesday, Jobs had been a hugely successful business innovator who’d turned Apple from a near-failure to a dominant brand in technology, and then in media and entertainment. By Thursday, he’d apparently devoted his life to furthering the development of mankind. Waves of mass hysteria are rarely spontaneous; nor could Jobs’ death have been a surprise to Apple, who must have prepared themselves with great care. Thursday’s wave of grief and love for a CEO was a brilliantly orchestrated PR campaign, and many smart people I know were drawn into it unquestioningly.

I’m a technologist, and fully aware of the immense achievement of Steve Jobs in turning Apple into the powerhouse it is today. I’m also (as you many have noticed in the first line of this article) a fan of some Apple products. Jobs has done for Apple what Bill Gates did for Microsoft, and what was previously done by IBM: achieve a position of power and dominance over the technology market. But more than that, the rise of Apple coincided with the rise of digital media; so Apple didn’t just get to rule the technology roost, but has also taken a dominant position in the retail of music, film, TV, software and books.

Apple hasn’t been shy in exploiting its stranglehold over these markets; any media owner wanting to reach iPod, iPad and iPhone users now must pay Apple handsomely for the privilege. App developers may create a unique piece of intellectual property and even find a market for it, but the only way their audience can access their product is by paying Apple for it. Apple arrived in an open, standards-based technology world and stifled the openness for profit.

Sure (you may say), but Apple is a business. It exists for profit, not to improve people’s lives. And you’d be right – Jobs and Apple created well-designed, timely products, coupled with a smart and ruthless strategy to bring themselves control and power over people’s products, work and media consumption. That’s what businesses do (or at least, try to). But does it make Jobs into a hero? Certainly not – any more than Bill Gates was a hero for forcing the dominance of Windows, and holding back technological development for perhaps a decade before the openness of the Internet swept him away. Apple’s dominance is crushing competition, which will hold back technology, not enhance it.

But Apple’s story is darker than just control of supply chains. Apple’s enemy in its dominance of digital media is the open Internet, with its free speech and lack of censorship. Apple is a ruthless censor of online content. Create an app containing nude imagery? Sorry, the censors at Apple don’t approve of that. Political satire? Sorry, the Apple thought police say No. You thought you were buying a phone? Actually, you were buying a good, clean, Christian way of life.

Apple’s use of cheap labour working in ugly conditions has been well documented. This is hardly limited to Apple, nor can the company be severely criticised for taking advantage of globalisation – if you don’t use Chinese labour to make your product, you’ll go out of business. The solution to that problem is growth in the Chinese economy coupled with transparency in the West. But can Jobs in any way deserve his new status as some kind of a saviour of mankind? I don’t think so – chalk up a huge win to Apple’s PR company. Do I blame Apple for turning Jobs into a hero so that some of the shine would rub off on its products? Not at all – they’re a business and that’s what businesses do.

I blame the ordinary person-on-Facebook for being so unselective in his or her choice of heroes. Only a couple of weeks ago, a Kenyan woman called Wangari Maathai died, also of cancer. Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her political and environmental work. She had been persecuted, abused, beaten, for standing up against political and corporate power. She made this sacrifice, not for financial gain or power, but because she felt it was right. The suffering of other people mattered to her more than her own safety and well-being. Do you remember two weeks ago how Facebook was filled with tributes to this great woman when we heard news of her death? Of course not. Maathai had no huge PR operation. The corporate-owned media don’t celebrate the lives of their enemies. She didn’t create that greatest God of Capitalism: Profit; indeed, her actions undoubtedly threatened profits.

Heroes still exist – they always have done. It’s just that the mass media would rather we didn’t know about them. Instead, they give us corporate heroes, CEOs, men who change the world – but not necessarily for the better. We need to be more selective about who we hero-worship. The power to write real heroes back into history is in our hands.

3 thoughts on “Celebrate Heroes, Not CEOs”

  1. Well said! Yes, Steve Jobs certainly was am innovator, but people are putting him on a pedastal as if he was some kind of Messiah.
    It’s like when Diana died, the mass hysteria in Britain was ridiculous. You couldn’t say anything about her that was vaguely negative without people coming down on you like a ton of bricks.
    For me, she lived and died a media whore. Okay, she went around the world holding a few babies.
    Mother Teresa died the same week and barely got a mention on the news as the media was obsessed with Diana.

  2. Very good post. I must admit to tweeting “RIP Steve Jobs – a true pioneer” when Jobs died but that was mainly to do with his role at Apple in the 1970s and early 80s developing the Lisa and then the first Macintosh (which was IMHO much more important than iTunes or the iPad). That 1984 Mac really was the first piece of kit which resembled a “modern computer” and although Apple missed their opportunity to dominate the PC industry mainly through bad business decisions (Robert X Cringely’s book ‘Accidental Empires’ is a great read on this topic), a lot of the innovations in the PC computing experience – particularly Windows 95 and thereafter – were essentially Microsoft ripping off Apple’s ideas.

    Of course, if you are an extreme moron like the followers of Ayn Rand, CEOs *are* the real heroes…

  3. Bang on perspective. I also admit to tweeting that Jobs was *the* business visionary of the post-war era, which I think he was. And I think it’s the appropriate context in which to eulogise him. On the other hand he profited from China’s “dark Satanic mills” and was widely regarded as a malevolent prick by many who worked for him.

    The desperate quest for flawless heroes is the saddest aspect of contemporary Western life. How many of our ‘leaders’ are people you’d really want to have dinner with? Most of them would be arrogant, braying boors.

    Perspective is everything

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