The death of Steve Jobs has been followed by a wide range of responses. Devotees camped out at the Apple store and bought multiple iPhones, with one stating, “For loyalty, I felt I had to do the line…I had to say thank you."[1] Another enthusiast drove 1200 miles to Jobs’ neighborhood Apple store, explaining, “We’re here to commemorate Steve.”[2] Jobs’ Stanford commencement address has brought renewed attention to the importance of our mortality in our daily lives,[3] and “marketing experts say products designed by widely admired figures such as Jobs usually see an upsurge in sales after their death.”[4]

What could buying a new phone possibly have to do with the death of the inventor? What impact could such a purchase have on the deceased, and why might his death enhance this product’s appeal? What is the impact on “the rest of us?”

Jobs’ death reminds us of two widely accepted notions. All of us, no matter how powerful, can (and will) die; and some of us can live forever in our cultural contributions.

By purchasing a new iPhone 4S (some have joked that the “S” stands for “Steve”[5]) consumers can pick up a nifty new phone/pocket computer and garner twofold participation in immortality, of the design aesthetic and the hero behind it: the iPhone is widely touted as a “classic,” that is, a design that will endure forever. The innovative genius, rendered immortal by his contribution, provides his followers a chance to participate in his immortality.

Saying, in essence, “I revere Steve Jobs, therefore I will buy the phone he designed,” can be translated as, “my life feels fuller, more meaningful and secure, because of my affiliation with this powerful figure.” Carrying and using the device we are reminded throughout the day of our seamless participation in a world of brilliant innovation and beauty. Adding apps, chatting with Siri, video-chatting with friends and loved ones all deepens our sense of participation with Mr. Jobs, his beautiful designs, and the infinite future of technological advance and aesthetic refinement.

The iPhone is a totem, an emblematic object of spiritual significance that conveys power and safety to the bearer. We’ve come a long way since amulets and rabbit feet warded off bad luck; now we have infinite contact with an infinite world of information, creativity and connection. New owners fondle their iPhones, show them to whoever will look, and ponder adding any of over 500,000 apps — to equipment that already just received over 200 enhancements.[6] Perhaps the “i” in iPhone stands for “infinite,” as in the infinite pursuit of technology as an end in itself.

Is there a downside? Mr. Jobs’ talents are certainly worthy of emulation, and valorizing him as a role model for the tech design community seems appropriate. It is ironic, however, that this man who urged us to be mindful of our mortality offers us an escape from the death awareness that guided his life choices. Concretely the iPhone is simply another tool, a Swiss Army knife that performs or facilitates multiple mundane tasks. But the passion surrounding the inventor’s death shows us that the phone is invested with much more power: it comforts and reassures us by warding off our own fears of death, and our awareness of our mortality.

Consciously nobody is saying to himself, “I bought this thing so I can live forever.” But unconsciously many are feeling, “by owning this powerful gadget I participate in a universal, timeless, heroic aesthetic, personified by Steve Jobs.” We will profit most from Mr. Jobs’ example if we can take full stock of our lives, our loves, our dreams, and the limited time we have to make good on them.

[1] Associated Press, Friday, October 14, 2011, “New iPhone launch turns into remembrance for Jobs.”

[2] Seattle Times, Friday, October 14, 2011, “Wozniak rolls up to be first in line for new iPhone 4S.”

[3] “Remembering I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've encountered to help me make the big decisions in life.”

[4] Associated Press, Friday, October 14, 2011, “New iPhone launch turns into remembrance for Jobs.”

[5] The Christian Post, Oct. 12 2011: “iPhone 5 Release Date: What Does the "S" in iPhone 4S Stand For?”


EBF Board Member Dr. John Wynn is a psychiatrist and organizational consultant in Seattle, Washington; more of his work is available online at https://

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