Steve Jobs Was the Henry Ford of Our Time

By , Contributor
There are certain key figures in American corporate life that transcend their businesses, and become part of the culture as a whole. Surely Steve Jobs, who is being mourned more than any businessman in recent memory, was one such figure. But he was not the first, and we can begin the difficult task of assessing his historical importance by noticing his affinities with another American businessman of comparable historical significance - Henry Ford.

Analyzing the similarities and contrasts between Jobs and Ford tells us a lot about the last 100 years of American life.

Steve Jobs Henry Ford.pngSteve Jobs didn’t invent the computer any more than Henry Ford invented the car. What Jobs and Ford did was more important than that. They did what the movers and shakers of American society have always done. Although they were not themselves populists, they created populist businesses that fundamentally reorganized the lives of millions of Americans.

There were cars before Ford, but they were basically toys owned by rich people. There were computers before Jobs, but they were basically computing machines for corporations and the military. What Ford and Jobs did seems simple in retrospect; they popularized cars and computers, and sold them by the millions. Like a lot of things that sound simple in retrospect, this was a remarkable act of daring. And it must not have been simple at all; if it had been really simple, other people would have done it.

Ultimately, Ford and Jobs belong to the great American tradition of visionaries, men who are excited by America’s independent spirit. They have the audacity to believe that they can realize their visions - and they do.

Ford and Jobs are so important for American history that the differences between them go beyond their personalities. Their differences show the differences between prewar America and postwar America. Ford’s authoritarianism is summed up in his famous statement that customers could have a car in any color they wanted as long as it was black. He hired gangs of thugs to break up strikes in the '30, and resisted America’s entry into World War II as long as he could.

Apple white.jpg

If Ford’s favorite color was black, Jobs’ favorite color was white. The white of Apple computers, with their sensuous surfaces that people loved to touch, and the white of Apple stores showed the decisive impact of Asian minimalism on Jobs’ sensibility. Unlike clunky PCs, Macs offer a pure example of the principle that high tech is ideally matched with high touch.

In McLuhan’s terms, Ford made cars, a hot medium; Jobs made computers, the ultimate cool medium. Jobs’ success demonstrates the cooling off of America like nothing else in the last thirty years.

Jobs said one time that he wanted to make “a dent in the universe.”  Well, he did. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams as an alienated teenager. For the rest of us, that dent now looks a lot like a hole - a hole in our psyches. And there are no more visionaries that can fill it.

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JIm Curtis has a background in Russian studies, and is fascinated with both high culture and popular culture. He just finished a book on Dylan, and covers the book beat for The Morton Report.

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