In a story too ubiquitous to bother linking, Steve Jobs is dead. This is of course a shame; no matter what you may have thought of Apple products, he was in every way an innovator and visionary. He may not have “invented” the devices he’s so associated with, but it was his vision and merciless attention to design and detail that guided them. Jobs was, in many ways, the great inventor of the dawn of the 21st century, much as Thomas Edison was at the beginning of the 20th. He will, in decades to come, be both idolized and reviled in equal measure, much as Edison was. The new roads he took the furst steps on will remain open, too.
Exactly three celebrity deaths have upset me very much; in each case I had what I felt was a personal connection with the person in question. (Those three people, for the curious, were Christopher Reeve, Gary Gygax and Carl Sagan.) I felt no personal connection to Apple, so Jobs’ death made me contemplate rather than grieve. And I thought of Tolkien.
Much has been made of the role of “magic” in Tolkien’s three great works, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. But there’s no wizards tossing fireballs such as we fantasy fans, raised on D&D and now World of Warcraft are accustomed to. In Tolkien, magic is very much in the making of things, and vision and knowledge guide the making as much as the hands that wield the hammer. The outward magic in Middle-Earth is in things made, like the Silmarils, or the barrow-knife that wounded the Witch-King, or the Great Rings itself, made by Celebrimbor but with lore learned from Sauron and tainted thereby. These are the greatest deeds of Middle-Earth, made by Men or Elves or demigods.
That Tolkien himself was a maker in words was not lost on him. He would rightly have seen what he was doing as magical, the kind of magic worth doing, that brings fulfillment through the act of creation itself. Aulë can in many ways be seen as Tolkien’s stand-in within the mythology; he made the Dwarves out of stone just as Tolkien himself made dwarves out of old Anglo-Saxon. This is the only real kind of magic; the ability to make and discover and inspire. It is the highest of human arts.
In this sense Steve Jobs was by Tolkien’s reckoning a kind of wizard. He saw was was possible instead of just what was plausible, and had the faculties to navigate between the two and find things that took their measure of both – the step that many prospective visionaries stumble over. I think that to say he “changed the world” is a bit hyperbolic, but he did as much to make it better as anyone else in the last several decades, and he did it through technology. No single man, save Edison alone, can realistically claim to have had the same impact via that means.
Steve Jobs ran a great company, ran it well, and ran it with enormous charisma and vision. The greatest technological visionary since Edison and the greatest businessman since Henry Ford. I think we have to respect him for that even where we might differ with Apple’s products or its corporate feuds. The tech sector, America and the world are poorer for his too-early passing. We will see his like again someday but, I think, not soon.