In a classic case of “where were you when,” I was just finishing up as a guest discussant at York University in Toronto Wednesday night when I found out Steve Jobs had passed away. It was sad news, especially given that Jobs, Apple and the iPhone had ironically come up many times during the class, which is all about broadband, the internet and technology.
My book Sex, Bombs and Burgers is actually part of the course reading, presumably selected to give students a break from the dry TCP/IP protocols and CRTC regulatory issues they normally have to digest. The chapters assigned for reading and then discussion in class were those dealing with the internet’s formation, as well as the pornography industry’s influence in helping to develop it.
One student put forward a question that I found to be particularly poignant later, after learning of Jobs’ death: If pornography is such a big driver of innovation, aren’t countries that ban it stunting their ability to innovate?
It was a thought-provoking query, not because of Apple’s own half-hearted attempt to ban porn from its products, but because of the deeper societal and economic issues it touched on.
I meandered through the answer until concluding that yes, countries that ban porn are doing themselves significant harm. It’s not just porn, though – outlawing smut is almost always just the top of the slippery slope, which inevitably leads to other rights being curtailed. Countries that place such limits on citizens’ freedoms – whether it’s looking at dirty pictures, being able to speak freely or protesting online or in the streets – are usually not very progressive or innovative.
China, where porn and many other freedoms are technically banned, is a great example. The country desperately wants to transform itself from the world’s manufacturing centre into an innovation hub and is throwing billions of dollars at emerging technology research, such as nanotech, to do so. But what the country isn’t doing – and what it is effectively preventing with its various limitations – is encouraging regular people to invent and create. China is trying to innovate on an institutional level, but it isn’t creating a culture of innovation.
The United States has fostered and nurtured just such a culture better than anyone for at least the past century. It has given the world the likes of Bill Gates, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and, yes, Steve Jobs, not to mention a whole slew of others. These are individuals who were consumed with the ability to create something new, but more importantly – whether it was in a garage or a basement – they had the freedom to follow their visions.
True innovation, therefore, doesn’t come from up on high. It comes from below, sometimes literally in the case of those businesses that started in basements.
Everything Apple is today is a testament to that culture and way of life. Jobs, along with his friend Steve Wozniak, started business literally in his family’s garage and now, almost 40 years later, it’s the most valuable technology company in the world. If that’s not the perfect example of the quintessential American dream, nothing is.
Steve Jobs really is more than just an entrepreneur and an inventor, he’s a symbol of that culture of innovation, and one that you don’t have to be an American to admire. His accomplishments have doubtlessly inspired many people around the world and hopefully will continue to do so.
The title of this post comes from Stephen Colbert’s I Am America (and So Can You). It’s a weirdly worded title for a book, but with a slight alteration, I think it perfectly describes the life and legacy of Steve Jobs.