As the news of Steve Jobs's resignation made the rounds Wednesday night, the world lit its votive candles. Jobs's biography was quickly turned into hagiography. His irascible perfectionism, his company's obsessive protectionism, and his devotion to secrecy were forgotten. There was only Steve Jobs: American icon.
The sadness was palpable; for Jobs himself, certainly. But also for something larger, something more abstract. Flashmobs of emotion like these are never just about their direct subject. They're about what that subject symbolizes. We mourn Jobs — both the person, and the company that he created in his own image — because he epitomized an endangered species: the American businessman.
Apple's rebirth, after Jobs returned to the struggling company from exile, and its vertiginous ascent came just as America slipped into decline. The iPod was released less than two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001; the iPad was announced in the midst of 2010's economic hangover. In the recent economic downturn, as storied Wall Street banks disappeared and the unemployment lines lengthened, Apple just kept growing: Its revenues more than doubled between 2008 and 2010, with margins so high that the company generated more than $7 billion in profit in the last quarter alone. It has flirted with displacing ExxonMobil as the world's most valuable company by market cap, and for a brief moment during the debt-ceiling crisis, it had more cash on hand than Uncle Sam himself.
Somewhere along the way, it became a piece of corporate America that people around the world actually sought out. Take a trip to any New York Apple Store and you will see a sleek consumer shrine filled with foreigners, united only by their worship of the company's iconic products. The Apple Store on 59th and Fifth Avenue* is the most photographed spot in the city. You almost have to pity Marty Markowitz, who, after five years of begging Apple to put a store in Brooklyn, sarcastically — we hope — claimed Apple won't "reach the big-time" until it moves into the borough.
It is a gauzy, nostalgic vision of corporate America that Apple alone can represent. Steve Jobs is our proof that America is still capable of creating world-beating technologies (even if the manufacturing is done in China, and the people putting Apple gadgets together sometimes commit suicide). Who has exported our culture of ideas and potential for innovation better than Steve Jobs? As Anil Dash noted last week:
He's the anchor baby of an activist Arab muslim who came to the U.S. on a student visa and had a child out of wedlock. He's a non-Christian, arugula-eating, drug-using follower of unabashedly old-fashioned liberal teachings from the hippies and folk music stars of the 60s.
He is all those things and also, as Jim Cramer noted last night, "America’s greatest industrialist. Perhaps the greatest ever." As he steps down as CEO, what matters most is that Apple is dominant in its field, and revered by everyone but its rivals. It is the hegemon that America used to be.
*This post originally stated that the 59th Street Apple store is on Lexington Avenue.