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Post Steve Jobs: Life After a Visionary

Less than a month after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, analyses continue to dissect his leadership style, the significance of his impact on technology and even the type of health care he chose.
/ Source: Discovery Channel

Less than a month after the death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs, analyses continue to dissect his leadership style, the significance of his impact on technology and even the type of health care he chose.

But even as books, interviews and documentaries emerge with new details about Jobs' past, the future is full of mysteries. After all, Jobs transformed the world of computers in massive ways, and only time will tell what will happen to technology in a world without him.

For those who might be anxious that the iPhone 4S is the pinnacle of personal computing, though, history may offer some comfort. Jobs was not the first visionary to push the limits of innovation, amass a following, or both. And he was not the first such leader to die too young.

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Yet, even after the deaths of visionaries throughout history, from Henry Ford to Martin Luther King, Jr., their ideas have managed to leave a lasting impact on society. In fact, it's the very nature of their visions that allows their legacies to persist, said Bernie Carlson, a historian of technology at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Because of Jobs, the computer is now ingrained in society as a personal object accessible to anyone, and that is unlikely to change.

"When you talk about a technological vision or visionaries such as Jobs, people get all worked up about the charisma and the idea that things only happened because this engaging personality made it happen," Carlson said. "But those charismatic ideas get embedded in society's way of doing things so that we take them for granted. If a vision really works, it's not about a cult of personality."

Henry Ford is a good example. Much like Jobs did with computers, Carlson said, Ford was the first person to look at cars as objects that should be available and affordable for everyone. His vision produced the beloved Model T, a car that ruled the roads for nearly 20 years.

By the end of its rein in 1927, the Model T had changed everything. Mass production on assembly lines now made it possible to build cars quickly and cheaply. And a whole new kind of infrastructure had appeared to support America's new-found passion for automobiles. Roadwork, gas stations, mechanics and dealerships allowed other companies to capitalize on Ford's big idea, which forever reshaped the way we live their lives.

Thomas Edison did something similar for electricity. In addition to developing a practical light bulb in the 1870s, Edison also created an electric company and a system of lighting that included generating stations, meters and wires.

By the time Edison died in 1931, Carlson said, a proposal to shut off every light in the country in his honor turned out to be impossible. It would be like trying to turn off every single iPhone, iPad and iPod for a minute today. The technology is now so pervasive that it's practically immortal.

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But parallels between Jobs and historical innovators only go so far. Unlike Edison and Ford, for example, Jobs died young and in the prime of his career. He also had a much bigger following among the public at large.

In those ways, he shared more in common with Martin Luther King, Jr., said Suzanne Staggenborg, a sociologist at the University of Pittsburgh. Clearly, personal computing and civil rights are different kinds of causes. And cancer is not equivalent to an assassination.

But Jobs and King were both popular figures that symbolized a big idea. And their deaths at young ages inspired both collective mourning and concern about whether their visions would die with them.

More than 40 years after King's death, though, people have not stopped fighting for equality, Staggenborg said, which suggests that there has always been more to the civil rights movement than just King.

"I think most scholars would say that the movement made King," Staggenborg said. "King didn't make the movement."

Plenty of other social movements, too, have persisted after the death of the charismatic leaders that shaped them, including Cesar Chavez and Gandhi. Still other struggles have made great strides without having a single leader in the first place, including fights for women's rights, the environment and gay rights. Some of the newest movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, have intentionally aimed to remain leaderless.

Like social movements, Staggenborg said, industries involve a large number of people. And while charismatic leaders frame issues in ways that inspire people, there is often a lot of organizational teamwork happening behind the scenes. It is that organization, argued, that may matter most for social struggles, for innovation and even for Apple.

"There are quite a few movements where I couldn't think of major leaders, and there are industries that don't have Steve Jobs but do have a good organizational structure," she said. "I don't think there are that many examples of one leader making all the difference."