Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Our Generation’s John Lennon

The other day I was talking to my uncle. He’s my dad’s age, a boomer. I was struggling to explain the importance of Steve Jobs’ death to my generation (“Generation X”, more or less) when this popped out of my mouth:

“He was our generation’s John Lennon.”

Ever since I said it, it’s been rattling around my brain. Could it be so?

It’s true that both men were visionaries who changed the world. And both men were taken before their time. Plus, they had similar taste in eyewear. But their differences also say something about their respective generations.

John Lennon started as a teen heartthrob and evolved into a political leader, but he was always an artist. And the way you interact with a famous artist is fundamentally unequal and passive. I don’t mean to diminish this experience in any way. I had a mind-blowing experience listening to Beatles records on my dad’s turntable wearing giant headphones when I was a kid. I poured over the dust jackets looking for clues, lost in the world they created. But it was a world where I was fundamentally a visitor.

Steve Jobs, in his life’s work at Apple, was also an artist. But his art was creating tools for other people to use. You’re not an audience when you use a Mac, you’re a creator. It’s an active experience. An iPhone connects you to the people you love, and to the world in general. Even the iPad, erroneously derided as a “consumer” device, is still a tool you use to make and do things. You’re in charge.

John Lennon’s gift was opening our minds with music. But Steve Jobs’ was about connecting our minds to technology and each other. He spearheaded the creation and mainstream adoption of tools that, just a few years ago, would have been considered science fiction. Both men were leaders. And, of course, both men did not achieve these things alone. But they both became emblems of their epochs.

This is something a lot of the eulogies (and the haters) have missed. It’s not (just) that Steve Jobs was a great artist, it’s that he gave us the tools to become great artists. Maybe the way you become a superstar in the modern world is more like Jobs and less like Lennon. You can’t expect to stand in the spotlight by yourself anymore. The way you change the world is to create environments where other people succeed. It’s less Zappa and more Zuckerberg. Less Fellini and more Flickr. Instead of standing in the spotlight, build a stage. Personally, I like it this way.

Thanks, Steve. I’m going to miss you.

← Back to Home

Hi, I’m Derek. I used to make websites. Now I grow flowers and know things. I’m mostly harmless. More.