Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Death of Steve Jobs, in the Context of the Information Age: 30 Days of Blogging, Day 1

So for those who didn't read my last post, I'll be trying to write one blog post per day for the next 30 days. Given the monumental event that occurred yesterday in the death of Steve Jobs, I felt it would be appropriate to write a bit of a reflection/analysis of the event as my first day's blog. For a lot of you, the information presented here may be met with a "well, duh", but I hope it's at least food for thought for some.

There is no arguing that yesterday, the world lost a great innovator, entrepreneur, thinker, and overall human being in Steve Jobs. Stories of his creative genius, philanthropy, and micromanagement of every detail of Apple are well-known, and he is undeniably one of the most important people of my lifetime. As sad and unexpected as Jobs' death was, my experience in finding out about it was a truly amazing example of the age we live in, so if I may speak about this event in a completely calculating and stoic way, here's the timeline:

Yesterday at 6:39PM central US time, I heard first word of Steve Jobs' death through the Facebook status of a friend from High School, which simply read "steve jobs died :(" I was pretty shocked by this, so I decided to try to find a more legitimate source to confirm it (after all, in August 2008 Jobs was mistakenly reported as dead, leading to his iconic "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" quote) The first place I went for information was a source often bashed by academics, high school teachers, and elitists everywhere, the wonderful Wikipedia. I'm a very firm believer in the Wikipedia project and everything it represents, and have learned an astronomical amount from the free, current, and (generally) neutral content on its millions of pages.

Anyway, I found nothing on Wikipedia regarding Jobs' death, and so I started going through the major sites that I usually get my news from:,, and None of these sites had anything either. At this point it was about 6:43PM, and I went back to Wiki to find that there was now a "-October 5th, 2011" following Jobs' birth date. Additionally, at the end of the section titled "Health" was a simple "Jobs has died as of October 5th, 2011". Not the most informative summary, for sure, but the fact is, Wikipedia got the news out quickly. And I had a pretty high degree of faith in their article, given that A) Jobs' article on Wikipedia is "semi-protected", and B) I've rarely found Wikipedia to be inaccurate with very current events. It took an additional 8 minutes for any such headlines to appear on BBC, CNN, or Reuters. Amazing. From this we can learn a few things:

1) As I mentioned, I put a lot of faith in Wikipedia. I believe that anything which can be edited by anyone will inherently become, for the most part, unbiased. This is certainly counter intuitive, and perhaps even wrong, but in my experience Wikipedia is unmatched in its ability to provide accurate and timely information. For free. (For an excellent article about the democratization of information by Wikipedia written by an old teacher/friend of mine, and one of my writing inspirations, click here)

2) It's pretty insane how quickly information travels nowadays. Think about this: how many "RIP Steve Jobs" statuses on Facebook or Tweets on Twitter did you see in the hour following Steve Jobs' death? 25? 50? Truly amazing. Incidentally, last night I was reading a biography of Mao Zedong. In the early part of the book, the author is discussing Mao's birthplace, and talking about the relative remoteness of the town in which he was born. The author goes on to say that
"these hills, with neither roads nor navigable rivers, detached the village from the world at large. Even as late as the early twentieth century an event as momentous as the death of the emperor in 1908 did not percolate this far, and Mao found out only two years afterwards when he left Shaoshan."
TWO YEARS! It took TWO FREAKING YEARS for Mao Zedong to find out that THE EMPEROR OF CHINA, the most important person in his country at that time, had died. And this was only after he had left his hometown of Shaoshan. Who knows how long it would have taken for the information to get to him had he stayed there.

Now granted, this was a pretty remote part of China, and I assume today it still lags pretty far behind such places as Shanghai and Beijing (fact check: it does. Hunan province ranks 19th out of 31 Chinese provinces for HDI, at 0.781. This compared to Shanghai at 0.908, and Beijing at 0.891), but even so, think about this for a minute. Compare the death of Steve Jobs, certainly a very important and influential person, but far from the most important person in the United States, to that of the Guangxu Emperor in 1908, the most important person in China at that time. Jobs' death was worldwide news probably no more than a couple of hours after the event itself. It took 2 years for Mao to learn of the death of an emperor who had been reigning for 33 years. I.e., this was not a fleeting reign. Presumably, nowadays one could find some form of internet in Shaoshan, which is a city of ~100,000. Therefore, in theory, as a resident of Shaoshan today, one could have found out about the death of Steve Jobs, an event which occurred half the world away, and likely had virtually no effect on the people of this town, instantaneously. Or nearly. Compared to 100 years ago, the advancement is literally unbelievable. Think about how much the world changed from the dawn of humanity until like 1850. Or 1900. Even 1950. Heck, even 1980! And think about how much it has changed since those years. Unbelievable? Yes.

3) This event also echoes the staggering AMOUNT of information available to us every day. Consider had this event occurred even 20 years ago. In the United States in 1991, I'd wager that maybe 10% of households had personal computers. Very likely, the case would be that most people would find news of Jobs' death in the newspapers the following morning--about 12 hours after the event occurred. 12 hours? In this day and age, 12 hours is an eternity! I was watching a commercial yesterday for some Verizon 4G something or other, in which there were a handful of people tailgating at a football game with iPads. People kept coming up to them asking if they'd heard about this football injury or if they knew you could upload videos now onto Facebook from your iPad, to which the people were replying "oh, that's so 12 seconds ago", and other such comments. The crazy thing is that this is not THAT far off. We not get our information instantly. The quantity, variety, and speed of the information we receive every second of every day is absolutely overwhelming--and thus companies like Google, which essentially act as a filter for the absurd amount of information available to all of us, are so successful.

So at the end of the day, I think it's a safe statement to say that the death of Steve Jobs was the first death of an icon in the decade of social media. I believe that the 1990's can be characterized as a decade in which the computer began to be mainstream. I recall in about 1997, my elementary school finally got a handful of computers (Macs, appropriately enough). The 2000's can be considered the decade where the internet really took off, in my experience, which AOL among others popularizing the internet in the earlier part of the decade, and high-speed connections completely changing the way we're able to share things online. The 2010's, in my experience, will be the decade in which we begin (or rather, continue) to put abstract things online. By this, I refer to the fact that nowadays, it is entirely possible (even common) to have people post photos of things as they are occurring. That is, photos of yourself and a handful of friends out at a club being posted while you're still in the club. Amazing stuff, the likes of which could not have even been fathomed during the internet's early years. Jobs' death exemplified the speed at which information can travel today. My assumption is that Jobs' death was first reported on Apple's website (I saw shortly after my discovery of his death via Wikipedia that Apple's main page was simply a photo of Jobs with "Steve Jobs: 1956-2011"). However, the fact that Wikipedia, this sort of little-engine-that-could project that should, in theory, be completely impossible (or at least impractical), was able to report this before any of the news organizations with enormous budgets, writing staffs, and revenues shows the amazing power of the internet, the personal computer, and the ingenuity and efforts of everyday people.

What do you know? A project managed by people banding together and using computers to their fullest potential in trying to share human knowledge, symbolizing the age of shared information, beating out the big news agencies that symbolize the age of information being filtered, slow, and not readily available.

I'd have to imagine Steve Jobs would have wanted nothing different.


  1. This is a great post, and something that those people who are anti-Wikipedia should probably read. As you stated, obviously there are going to be flaws, but for the most part, the articles are going to be accurate because people will fix them. Unless you go on the site in the two minutes where some troll changed the information, you should be solid.

    As for Jobs' death, of course it's a huge loss. While people are on both sides of the Microsoft vs. Apple debate, I think we can all agree that he had some impact in just about everyone's life. It's unfortunate, but thankfully he got to spread a lot of his innovation and make a lot of people happy in his time here.

    I'll be sure to stop back and read some more of these when given the time.

  2. Cheers for the comment, yeah Wiki definitely seems to have a pretty good system in place to keep content accurate/current, particularly the whole "protected" and "semi-protected" articles thing. Definitely a method of getting information that was ahead of its time when first conceived,but is now starting to come into its own.

    Hope to continue to see you around here, always good to hear that people are actually reading these things.