Steve Jobs and the spread of freedom


Steve Jobs is dead.

The up-and-down story of Jobs’ life is quintessentially American and nothing short of astonishing: adopted child, college dropout, inventor of the personal computer, founder of Apple at the age of 21, fired from Apple at the age of 30, creator of the NeXT Computer that was used to create the world’s first web browser and web server, founder of Pixar Animation that forever changed the movie industry with the release of “Toy Story,” re-hired by a near-bankrupt Apple at age 42, creator of the iPod that revolutionized the music business, creator of the iPhone that changed how the world looked at cell phones, creator of the iPad that created the tablet market, and CEO of the back-from-death Apple when it became the world’s most valuable company earlier this year.

The reason behind Jobs’ stunning success: his relentless drive to empower consumers. He created products the world did not even know it needed, but now cannot live without.

These creations increased the power of the individual to control his or her own destiny – to listen to what we want, to watch what we want, to talk to whom we want, to read what we want, where we want, when we want.

Even those who have never used an Apple product have felt Jobs’ influence. He brought the mouse, the graphical user interface, icons, and the menu bar to the world of personal computing. The stylish look of personal computers – multiple typefaces and proportionally-spaced fonts – derive from a calligraphy class Jobs sat in on after dropping out of college.

By forcing his business competitors to raise their standards (Microsoft and the rest of the cellphone industry most notably), Jobs transformed non-Apple products, as well. His quest for excellence brought out the best in himself and others.

One other Jobs’ innovation? Super Bowl commercials as must-see events.

The year was 1984. George Orwell’s totalitarian novel of the same name inspired Jobs to use the Super Bowl to launch the new Macintosh computer, yielding one of the most iconic advertisements in history.

The scene is this: in a colorless world, a video of Big Brother speaks to a group of brainwashed people who all look and dress the same. Big Brother’s message echoes the themes of classic communism:

“Today, we celebrate the first glorious anniversary of the Information Purification Directives. We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology – where each worker may bloom, secure from the pests purveying contradictory truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause. Our enemies shall talk themselves to death, and we will bury them with their own confusion. We shall prevail!”

As this speech concludes, a woman hurls a sledgehammer to the video screen, shattering the image of Big Brother. A narrator then announces: “On Jan. 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’”

The message: the personal computer spells the end of totalitarianism.

Understand that at the time such an idea was nothing short of radical. While Ronald Reagan boldly predicted the end of communism, no right-thinking person took Reagan seriously. Indeed, the intelligentsia mocked him for his naivete. The continued existence of communism, everyone knew, was a historical inevitability.

Against this backdrop, few, if any, immediately understood the totality of Jobs’ vision that the computer would fundamentally alter the relationship between citizens and their government. It would be easy to dismiss Apple’s Super Bowl ad as mere marketing, but never has an advertisement proven so remarkably prescient.

Dictatorships thrive when they are able (a) to control the flow of information and political speech, (b) to make citizens feel isolated from one another, and (c) to instill fear.

Technology, however, connects people like never before, quickly and easily disseminates information, and lessens the fear created by an authoritarian regime. The comfort connection supplies is profound: “You are not alone.”

Tremendous power flows from such knowledge because in any given dictatorship, the governed vastly outnumber those that govern, meaning that the people can always overthrow the state if they are sufficiently connected.

The passengers of United 93 on 9/11 had the same insight: there are more of us than there are of you. Realizing their power, they were able to overtake their hijackers before the plane could be crashed into another building. Similarly, when the state’s ability to suppress dissent and keep people isolated evaporates, so too does its dictatorial power.

The Twitter revolution in Iran, the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and the ongoing weakening of China’s ability to control its citizens – all serve as testaments to the truth proclaimed in that Apple ad long ago.

Throughout the world, tyranny stands on its last legs because of the personal empowerment that technology brings to oppressed peoples. This flowering of freedom, when all is said and done, may count as Steve Jobs’ most lasting legacy.

America has lost one of its greatest men.

[Lance McMillian is a Fayette County resident and law professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School.]