Mourning public figures – thoughts prompted by the reaction to the death of Steve Jobs

This blog post isn’t about Steve Jobs per se, but there are some things I need to say about him in order to make my point (if I in fact have one; writing this blog was an attempt to marshal my thoughts, let me know if I succeeded?!).

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” Antony, Julius Caesar Act III Scene ii

Of course the irony in using that quote is that Antony most definitely WAS there to praise Caesar! So, let’s get the praising done because there is undeniably some due: Steve Jobs was an incredibly effective marketer who had a wonderful aesthetic sense. As to the burying part, that is already done and I am truly sorry for his family’s loss.

We all expect a certain amount of hyperbole in a eulogy but many of the comments made after Jobs’ death by people who didn’t know him still seemed excessive to me:

“he changed the world”

“I heard about his death and had a real lump in my throat and felt tearful”


“he was an iCon”

There were the pictures of candles arranged in the shape of an apple, flowers left at Apple Stores, friends changing their avatars on Facebook to pictures of Steve Jobs…The scale and personal nature of the mourning I was seeing frankly made me feel uncomfortable. I started thinking – why are so many people reacting to the death of this businessman as if it were a personal loss?

For some, how they felt about Jobs was inextricably linked with how they feel towards Apple. For many of us with special needs children the iPad has been a life-changer so I can understand that for some it was natural to mourn an individual perceived as the inventor of the iPad. As an aside, if you do a Google search you’ll find a lot of debate over who ‘really’ invented the iPad, with nods to Arthur C. Clarke/Stanley Kubrick and Gene Rodenberry as far as the aesthetic is concerned and Xerox PARC, the Elograph, Grid Systems and others when it comes to substance. One article I found especially interesting was about one of the iPad’s ancestors, the Dynabook. In addition to discussing iPad genealogy there’s also some interesting thoughts on why an app-dependent tablet like the iPad could be seen as inhibiting the further democratization of technology:,10209.html )

I digress. Regardless of who you argue ‘invented’ the touch-tablet its clear that, to date, Apple has executed the concept best. The iPad is also the definite winner in terms of market share. But the iPad is an Apple product, not something personally created by Steve Jobs – he himself put it best when he stated:

” Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team of people”

I like the comparison of  Jobs to someone like Henry Ford – neither of them was really an ‘inventor’ but both of them excelled at mass production and were incredibly effective at marketing their product.

Of course the philanthropic endeavours of businessmen can have a powerful impact on people’s lives. Great examples of this are found in the English quaker business families of the nineteenth century – Joseph Rowntree (social reformer), George Cadbury (employment conditions) and Elizabeth Fry (prison and mental health reform).  In Steve Jobs’ case however, there is no altruism or philanthropy we can point to as he always expressed a preference for keeping his charitable activities anonymous. Whilst I respect his choice I personally don’t agree with it. I think individuals who are fortunate enough to be billionaires should openly support the causes they believe in – when Bill Gates and Warren Buffet donate billions it draws needed attention to the causes they are supporting. With respect to Apple, I note that when Jobs became CEO of the company for the second time he cancelled all corporate philanthropic projects (although some were subsequently reinstated). Apple knows that their iOS devices have been a blessing for many with special needs but the only response from them that I’m aware of is to use this information to sell more iPads (see the video used at the launch of iPad2 for an example).

Many would point to the fact that Jobs died at a relatively young age leaving a wife and children behind. This is indeed sad, but its also something that happens to thousands of families every day. We don’t know those people but then none of the individuals that I saw mourning Steve Jobs knew him either.

When Jack Layton died earlier this year some were uncomfortable with the public mourning that his death unleashed. The most well-known expression of this discomfort was the article written by Christie Blatchford for the National Post:

I felt at the time (and still feel now) that Blatchford’s article largely missed the mark. It was incredibly poorly timed – printed the day that Layton died. But I don’t think it was just Blatchford’s bad timing (or inelegant writing) that left a bad taste in many people’s mouths. Layton was a politician that had very actively and very recently wooed Canadians in a general election, an election in which his party performed extraordinarily well. The NDP results in Quebec and becoming the official opposition were historic achievements  and Layton’s leadership played a large part in bringing them about. He died shortly after his greatest triumph and the tragedy of that was keenly felt by many. Torontonians in particular felt a very personal connection with Layton – he lived in Toronto, served on the city council for years and those residents who are cyclists, members of the LGBT community, concerned with the environment or affordable housing are all acutely aware of his legacy in the city.

Having said that I think Ms. Blatchford was miguided in the case of Mr. Layton, I do think she correctly recognized the phenomenon of the “thoroughly public spectacle” that is now so often sparked by the death of a public figure. She pinpoints the death of Princess Diana as the start of this phenomenon. I didn’t understand the reaction to Princess Diana’s death at the time and frankly continue to be bemused by it now. It appears however to have set the precedent we now follow when celebrity figures die. The danger in this is noted by Ms. Blatchford near the end of her Layton piece:

“the public over-the-top nature of such events — by fans for lost celebrities they never met, by television personalities for those they interviewed once for 10 minutes, by the sad and lost for the dead — make it if not impossible then difficult to separate the mourning wheat from the mourning chaff”

I agree with her general point here – we not only risk losing sight of what people actually did achieve in life by exaggerating their achievements in the immediate wake of their death we also cheapen the act of mourning itself. If we claim that Steve Jobs “changed the world” then what do we have left to say when someone like Nelson Mandela dies? If we’re crying and bereft at the death of Steve Jobs,  how do we cope with the death of those we actually know and care about?

"It's not the consumers' job to know what they want" Steve Jobs

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5 Comments on “Mourning public figures – thoughts prompted by the reaction to the death of Steve Jobs”

  1. Victor October 12, 2011 at 3:02 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading this blog. I think it’s good timing for such a thought to come out. I also find it strange how we make emotional attachments to people we don’t know. Steve Jobs only had the ideas…He was a marketer by heart; he knew how to sell. It was his engineers at Apple who made the iPad, iPhone and all other ithings. I sometimes wonder how they feel, not getting the recognition…But in saying that Steve Jobs is the face of Apple and in saying that all of the emotion is directed to him.

    I sometimes cringe when I hear that “Steve Jobs changed lives”. I see it as a bit of selling the emotion that Steve Jobs evokes, for our own cause. Right or wrong, it is just not for me.

    I absolutely love Apple products! All of them. They are stylish, functional and fun! The Apple Team did a great job at bringing mobile solutions together to act as one. Good job!

    Steve Jobs did a great job at bringing the ideas together, marketing them and helping us understand his vision for the future. I believe the Apple Team will carry on this vision.

    • OMum22 October 12, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Victor. I’m glad you thought the post was well timed – I do think a week is a good length of time to reflect on this – not close enough to his passing to be considered offensive (I hope) but not so far off that its irrelevant. I wanted to get folks thinking about this while it was fresh in their minds. Look forward to seeing you here again!

  2. Gingerheaddad October 12, 2011 at 8:52 pm #

    Like you, I have never understood why there is a great need to mourn publicly when a famous person dies. I have always thought the Princess Diana grief was creepy and gruesome. Hearing that people were leaving flowers or candles at apple stores just seemed bizarre. Are the stores supposed to be stand-ins for churches these days? It’s also a little maddening to think that people buying candles and flowers could have given that money to local organizations alleviating hunger, sheltering homeless or protecting the abused.

    What superlatives, indeed, will we have left when someone who stood for democracy and tolerance dies when we used all the good words to say thank you to a guy who just wanted our money.

    • OMum22 October 12, 2011 at 11:00 pm #

      Thanks Jim. I think you make two really good points – one is the reference to church. I wonder if our increasingly secular society simply doesn’t give people access to rituals that would help them process (or suppress, depending on your perspective) emotion? Secondly, thank you for mentioning the ‘waste’ that this sort of mourning represents. I remember viewing the wall of flowers that had been constructed in front of Kensington Palace after Princess Diana died and discussing that exact point with someone. It made no sense to me that one of the reasons people used to justify their grief at her death was because of all the charitable work she did. If that were the case, wouldn’t the best way to honour her memory be to support those charities instead of throwing flowers onto a glorified compost heap?

      • Gingerheaddad October 13, 2011 at 10:25 pm #

        Excellent term–glorified compost heap.

        I wonder if a suitable ritual following the death of a billionaire should be giving a dollar to every homeless person who asks for spare change. That COULD hold the promise of changing someone’s life.

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