The world has lost Steve Jobs - and Dr. Ralph Steinman, Wangari Maathai and Sophie de Villers
By Mitchell Beer
As I approached my local Apple store on the Saturday afternoon after Steve Jobs’ death, I wondered briefly about the change in décor on the front window. What looked like a stucco or clapboard finish seemed out of keeping with the company’s angular, austere, ever-so-modern image.
It turned out the new look was made up of dozens of post-it notes placed by avid customers to mourn the passing of the Apple founder and ex-CEO. The tableau included several bouquets and one (non-digital) candlestick, the kind of full-scale memorial that usually signals the death of royalty or a well-known pop icon, or marks the spot of a major tragedy.
I didn’t begrudge Jobs the recognition. His keen sense of human nature translated into generations of products that touched millions at a deep emotional level. But walking past the Apple store, I knew something was wrong with this picture.
A post on the Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog contrasted the mass outpouring for Jobs with the muted response to the loss of Dr. Ralph Steinman, the Nobel laureate in medicine who co-discovered the dendritic cell, but died just hours before his award was announced. Steinman’s research led to therapies that will add years and quality to millions of lives—including his own.
While Steinman’s discovery helped extend his life, Jobs’ work was at best extended his image—because if you want to commemorate him with a digital candle, there was an app for that.
Not so much for Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, who also died of cancer in September. Maathai was a trailblazer for women, democracy, and human rights on a continent where there are still thousands who can’t afford iPhones.
In the industrialized North, where constant communication is an afterthought, her death passed with scarcely a word.
And for the millions of words that were written after Jobs’ death, parts of his story received scant attention. Monologuist and comedian Mike Daisey, creator of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, visited the Foxconn plant in China that manufactures a large share of Apple’s output. He came away horrified by the suicides, 34-hour work shifts and hideous injuries behind the intuitively humane products that workers had never even seen fully assembled. Daisey hasn’t stopped using Apple products, but he thinks anyone who carries an iPad or a Macbook should get a better understanding of the supply chain behind their purchases.
The portrait of Jobs as an object of mass grief also stood in contrast to the everyday heroes who never made a Nobel committee’s short list. One of mine was Sophie de Villers, vice-president of strategy management at Canadian Blood Services, who died last February at the age of 50. Sophie joined Blood Services in the wake of a tainted scandal that undermined Canadians’ confidence in one of the cornerstones of an effective health system. She was a colleague, an ally, a remarkable mentor—and the results of her 60-hour work weeks stay well below the radar, unless you’re one of the estimated 525,000 Canadians who need safe transfusions every year.
In the HBR blog, Shyam Sunder says “we tend to overrate Jobs because of his showmanship.” Alternatively, he continues, Ralph Steinman “not only saw the vision but worked on it himself,” yet “we’ve got to accept that his contribution will not be that widely recognized.”
The contrast is a bit oversimplified, because Jobs arguably earned the accolades he’s received. But if all our attention goes to a handful of celebrities, with none left over for people who are revolutionizing immunology, combating climate change and deforestation, or helping rebuild a national blood system from the ground up, which path are we expecting the next generation of researchers, activists and system thinkers to choose?
About Mitchell Beer
Mitchell Beer, CMM, is president of The Conference Publishers Inc. in Ottawa, Canada, one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repackaging conference content. He tweets as @mitchellbeer.
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