Steve Jobs Is Dead, And So Is My Dad: Two Very Different Silicon Valley Stories

Photo by Peter Thoeny via Flickr.

My Dad died five years ago, and I often dream of him. Two nights ago, I awoke from a dream in which I was attending a 70th birthday celebration in his honor. In a large field in Cupertino, the size of a high school football field, hundreds of people had come to salute him, for his Steve Jobs- or Bill Gates-level contributions to the computer industry. He was recognized, and loved, and this was his day.

Since learning of Steve Jobs’ death last night, I’ve been working through my conflicted emotions about this influential but problematic figure, and thinking a lot about my Dad and that dream.

In real life, my Dad died before he turned 70, was survived by his small immediate family and a handful of acquaintances, and did not transform the tech industry or the world in the way that Jobs or Gates did. He was a casualty of the Silicon Valley’s youth-obsessed culture and its rapacious drive to constantly produce more product for less money, human cost be damned.

Like Jobs, my Dad was a college dropout. He learned his trade by repairing hardware during battles as a Marine serving in Vietnam. After the end of the war, he got a job in the nascent computer industry, a heady time when law-breaking phone phreaks like Steve Wozniak were on the cusp of becoming millionares, and the industry was open to just about anyone with an interest and some technical know-how. My Dad worked his way up as a software engineer in an industry that was very different than it is now, with employees expecting that they would grow old comfortably working at the same company. When I was very young, he was a well-paid project manager at a Motorola subsidiary located in the same building that now houses Apple’s world headquarters, an office park since given the iconic name “1 Infinte Loop”. We had a large house in the pricy Santa Cruz suburb of Aptos, and I remember eagerly awaiting Christmas mornings where it seemed that no expense had been spared.

In the mid-’80s, his division was shut down and my Dad was laid off. Unlike Jobs, he did not enjoy a golden parachute or late-career comeback. Instead, he was told at the many job interviews he went to that his experience left him overqualified, that his lack of a college or advanced degree left him underqualified, or that he was too old, in euphemistic terms. He doggedly applied for jobs that paid much less than he was worth, for entry-level positions, but there was no place for unconventional backgrounds or desperation in the newly minted, efficiency-obsessed tech industry of the mid ’80s.

For the following two decades, until his death in 2006, my Dad had no choice but to take minimum-wage service jobs, often two at a time, to support his family — his wife, my Alzheimer’s-afflicted grandmother, and myself, his only son. He worked at 7-11, as a security guard, and as the desk attendant at a hotel, and never let his pride or the fact that he was capable of so much more get in his way. The large house in Aptos was sold, and we relocated to small apartments in also-expensive Cupertino and Sunnyvale. During my first two years of high school, the four of us shared a one-bedroom apartment as my parents struggled make ends meet.

Having grown up watching my father’s hardships, I long harbored a resentment for the Valley’s culture and ethics, alongside my enduring admiration for my Dad’s perseverance, hard work, and commitment to doing a great job, no matter how menial that job that might have been. I spent my twenties with little direction other than a firm belief that I would never join the tech industry. During the dot com boom, I served coffee to 18-year-olds who were so flush that they would tip for their drinks with five-dollar bills. I sneered at the Lexus-driving, commuting yuppies who would visit my Santa Cruz coffee shop and behave like they were kings of the world. As my twenties ground down, I became less sure of the path my life was on, but remained emphatic that I would never enter the computer industry. However, that entire time I was my father’s son, and loved tinkering with computers, keeping up on new software and gadgets, and never doubted that computers and the Internet were the most important and revolutionary forces of my time, for good, bad and ambiguous ends.

Like my Dad, Steve Jobs entered the tech industry from an unconventional background, as did many in the ’70s. His path in the unforgiving Silicon Valley tech industry was much different from my father’s. By all rights, that long-harbored grudge that I have long held against the Valley’s culture and its cannibalistic business practices should be directed at Jobs right now. Yet I find myself more affected by his death than I could have expected. Since I woke from a feverish nap yesterday evening to hear the news on Twitter, I’ve been trying to parse out why this is. Though I understand and respect people’s grief over the death of deceased famous figures, it’s rare that I share it. I feel no personal intimate connection to Steve Jobs the man, yet I’m still profoundly affected by his death.

Growing up in the ’80s and ’90s in Cupertino, Sunnyvale and (to a lesser degree) Santa Cruz, Jobs’ figure loomed large. While in elementary school, I wrote and published a neighborhood newspaper on my Apple IIc using a primitive precursor to PageMaker. This is how I first expressed my passion for writing, publishing, and DIY projects. Some years later, I attended Homestead High School, where Jobs had once attended, a place where he and Wozniak’s presences loomed over a decade later. One of my teachers often lamented that he had once turned down an offer to invest in the company Jobs and Wozniak were creating in a garage, to his regret. As a member of the high school newspaper, I learned many of the writing, editing and layout skills I use today during the many hours I spent staring at a monochrome Mac display in a stuffy, ad-hoc production room built in the corner of a classroom.

In the years after, I switched Windows machines, which were all I could afford as a college student, and later as a low-paid customer service employee and aspiring musician. Though I secrety coveted the industrial design of friends’ sleek MacBooks, I adopted many of the staunch self-rationalizations common to committed Windows users—that Macs were toys for the rich and the fashion-obsessed which allowed for less customization and didn’t “really” let you get under the hood. I defended every Windows machine I bought, even though each one had components die within weeks of their warrantees expiring, requiring that I dismantle and repair the system myself, or that I spend hours Googling for obscure registry repairs and mysteriously-vanished hardware drivers.

As an underemployed twenty-something with little direction and a lot of time, this was novel for a few years, though I had no interest in becoming an IT person or learning more than was necessary to fix a system failure. After I became employed in much more time- and energy-consuming jobs, and came to realize how much I disliked repairing hardware, messing with registry settings, or looking at code, the customizability and cheap components of Windows machines ceased to be novel and became time-wasting impediments to my ability to do what I wanted and needed to do with machines that were no longer a hobby, but were now a necessary tool. A year ago I swallowed my long-time Windows user pride and bought a MacBook, and while there are a few design elements in Windows that I still prefer, I haven’t regretted the switch.

Yet even when I was at my staunchest point of Windows advocacy, I recognized Jobs’ outsized impact on the world we live in. The fingerprints of his vision, influence, design philosophy, and drive to iterate are on every graphic user interface, computer, or mobile device we use today. We take these things for granted, but without Jobs, they would look very differently. If it wasn’t for Jobs emphasizing throughout his career that hardware and software should be made for normal people, not engineers—for designers and writers and artists and filmmakers and musicians and administrative workers and retirees—the computers and devices and user interfaces we use every day would probably look a lot more like Microsoft and Google at their most user-unfriendly and engineer-centric.

Thank you for delivering us from this, Steve.

Amid the outpouring of grief for Jobs’ death, there are also a lot of legitimate critiques of him and his company’s practices from activists and progressive publications, of Apple’s reliance on underpaid third-world laborers working in appalling conditions, and its use of materials potentially sourced from war-torn regions. How the company, like other Silicon Valley tech firmshides massive profits in tax havens while the Federal Budget is slashed and the State of California nears bankruptcy. That Jobs placed the sort of unreasonable demands on his employees that are all too common in the tech industry, and which wouldn’t be tolerated in other businesses. That he is also often given credit for the work of others, and was just as comfortable with appropriating others’ ideas as his longtime rival Bill Gates.

And now is as good a time as any to raise them. Jobs’s life is no more valuable than those of the FoxConn workers who committed suicide, or the children in the Congo who mine the conflict minerals that are potentially in our mobile devices and the electric cars that dominate the Valley. If his death brings more attention to these pressing issues, that would be a ghoulish, but ultimately positive, catalyst.

However, there’s no need for moral posturing, the scolding of people who are processing a torrent of news in real time, or suggestions that being affected by Jobs’ death somehow negates ones’ ability to also care about his failings, the tech industry’s abhorrent labor practices in the third world, the brutalities of globalization, Occupy Wall Street, or the death of civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth.

Within minutes of Jobs’ death, my social media timelines filled up with expressions of surprise and grief, alongside sentiments of disgust and outrage that people were expressing grief for a captain of industry while Occupy Wall Street protestors were being beaten by cops. There were admonitions that Jobs was a ‘sweatshop slavemaster’ not worthy of being honored.

In a recent post for the Rumpus, “The Week Social Media Broke My Heart”, Manjula Martin writes about the social media responses to the near-simultaneous execution of Troy Davis, the breakup of R.E.M., and the Facebook redesign. She wrestles with the common impulse to become what I’d call a “social media scold” during times of breaking news:

…Some things are a bigger deal than others and it’s good to have perspective. White people like indie rock and are not frequently killed by our government. I got it. But also … something about the mean-spiritedness of it all didn’t sit right with me. Why are we so invested in judging each other’s real-time filtering of current events online? Of course a rock band breaking up isn’t as important as Troy Davis being killed. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t touched in real and important ways by it.

Even more troubling are the suggestions that it’s hypocritical for those with a social conscience to be moved by Jobs’ passing and accomplishments. The Internet’s a uniquely efficient tool for engaging in moral posturing and calling out perceived hypocrisy. It’s not as great at encompassing nuance, contradiction, or human imperfection.

All of us who exist in social media’s liminial space between newscaster and news consumer live in fear of being labeled hypocrites. That fear has a toxic effect on our psyches and limits the complex, evolving, and inherently contradictory people that we are. It stands in the way of us taking risks or expressing ourselves earnestly. It limits us, and distorts our own humanity. AsMerlin Mann succinctly puts it, the best you can attempt is to be the “hypocrite you can live with”.

As someone who has done my fair share of moral posturing on social media over the years, and only reconsidered after being turned off by the torrent of tweeted recriminations that followed the Gabrielle Giffords shooting, I know that playing the social media scold is tempting and briefly satisfying. But that self-satisfaction curdles next morning: it doesn’t enlighten or inform people, it merely shames those who are also processing the same breaking news, in different ways than yourself. This isn’t high school debate team; we are engaging an unprecedented form of media with few established social norms, in which we are all simultaneously creators and consumers of news, in which we think and work through events publicly, in real time, a process rife with conflict and contradiction and emotion.

Today, many people who never met Jobs who feel affected by his death are writing articles and blog posts, and sending well-wishes to his friends and family. If you are not moved, or if you consider him a “sweatshop owner” or a modern “robber baron”, I share your concerns, even if those aren’t the terms I would use. But instead of chiding those who are articulating their grief about Jobs’s passing, let me suggest that you write a letter or call the company that manufactured the device you are reading this on — be it Apple, Dell, Samsung, Sony, HTC, Amazon, HP, or one of the many other companies that share the same manufacturing and supply chains — and let them know that as a customer, you demand products that are not manufactured in sweatshops with materials sourced by children from war-torn third world countries, and that you’re willing to pay more for these devices if necessary. Try to educate others about these issues, and what they can do. But don’t be a dick about it.

Even if you find it ridiculous that people are emotionally affected by the death of a famous billionaire, if you find these outpourings of grief distasteful or disingenuous, many of us still sincerely feel affected by his death, for many different and often conflicting reasons. I have no personal connection to Steve Jobs the man, and have many critiques of his business practices, products, and the company he built, which I will continue to write about and discuss. But despite my many reservations, I feel his influence in the tools I use every waking hour of the day, which I have developed an intimate and even emotional relationship with, for better and worse.

To Steve Jobs, thank you for making products and user interfaces with impeccable design taste and great vision, for your commitment to excellence and iteration, for making the ethos of “the intersection of technology and liberal arts” more than a slick PR line, and thank you for saving us non-engineers from the goddamn command line and endlessly nested menus. Your accomplishments have had a profound effect on my life. To his friends and family, my sympathies, and to those also touched by his work and his life, I commiserate.

Steve Jobs died at 56, my Dad died at 63, both too young. Jobs’ vision suffuses the tools I use every hour of every day. I feel my Dad’s absence in every moment. Steve Jobs was one of the winners of the new economy, while my Dad was not. As I see the people taking to the streets who, like my Dad, ended up on the losing side of capitalism despite their best efforts, I’m reminded of the empty office parks that now surround my Mom’s Sunnyvale house like a spectre of a near-future dystopia, of the tech industry specialists near retirement age whose jobs were outsourced or cut years ago and now greet me when I enter the Sunnyvale Home Depot, if they’re one of the few fortunate ones to have found a service industry job. These are the casualties of a world-changing industry largely modeled in the image of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Jobs and Gates are far from heroes, but they have still had a profound effect on the lives of us all, and that cannot be denied. I will not ignore or deny Jobs’ failings, but I will certainly recognize his accomplishments.