Why Is Everyone So Upset by Steve Jobs' Death?

Last Updated Oct 7, 2011 2:36 PM EDT

Is Steve Jobs the new Princess Diana? People are leaving flowers at Apple (AAPL) stores around the world in response to his death. As with Diana, the outpouring of grief is much more about us than it is about any connection with Steve Jobs.

"There is something very strange to me about leaving flowers at an Apple Store because Steve Jobs died," says renowned Boston comedian Tim McIntire. "Flowers to the funeral home? Sure. Flowers to his widow? Natch. To a random retail location? Weird."

(See A Guided Tour of Impromptu Fan Memorials to Steve Jobs)
McIntire is by no means dismissive of Jobs or his accomplishments. There is no doubting that he was an amazing, visionary businessman. He produced some of the most popular consumer electronics going. He gave us Pixar. He is most certainly someone whose death should be noted by the wide world.

The response is unexpected in large part because of Jobs' public persona. The most we saw of him was when he took the stage to announce a new Apple product. There he came across as smart and direct, not warm. He made a cerebral -- not emotional -- connection to his audience. Even at his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, where he talks about confronting his own mortality, he is inspirational without letting the audience connect to his fears. Compare that to Randy Pausch's Last Lecture. This isn't a criticism of Jobs, that's just who he was.

Try to think of another businessman whose death could or did get this kind of response. In the U.S. the only ones of a similar stature currently are Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. "When Gates goes -- who by any measure has spent WAY more time and money trying to make the world a better place -- I'll be curious to see how people react," says McIntire.

Not even Walt Disney got this kind of reaction. When he died in 1966 he was probably better known -- his weekly show on one of the three TV networks got huge ratings -- and he came across as warm and enthusiastic. Still the audience wasn't moved to any public expressions. (Oddly Disney (DIS) has set the flags to half-mast at Disney World to mark Jobs' death -- which they didn't do when Walt died.)

Jobs death, though, takes place at a time when we have a totally different relationship to both brand and technology. We are now a brand people. Your brand markings -- which we all wear -- define your beliefs and your tribe. Do you drive a BMW or a Mini? If you buy one there is little if any chance you would buy the other, even though they are made by the same company.

"We're at a place where it's easy to confuse 'brand I identify with' and 'touched my life,'" says McIntire, who also owns Mottley's Comedy Club in Boston. "And I'm not sure that's good for us."

It is cliché to say we live in a personal technology-centered world. Our obsession with our devices is deep and complex. Have computer problems and your day is ruined. If your car isn't working, it's a pain but not a cause of despair. It's so common to hear people say "I love my [device name]" that no one notices it anymore.

Jobs and Apple were synonymous with each other in the public eye. Because so many of us own iPods and iPhones we feel a connection to the company. The company was named Apple to give it a friendly, approachable identity. The company's hallmark is devices with a great user interface. They are all about ease of use. They make our lives easier/nicer, so in some way we think they are caring for us.

Expressing sentiment over Jobs' death is also acknowledging our emotional attachment to that micro chip which has done so much for us. And which we will throw away as soon as the new model comes out.

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    Constantine von Hoffman is a freelance writer and writing coach. His work has appeared in outlets such as Harvard Business Review, NPR, Sierra magazine, Brandweek, CIO, The Boston Herald, TheStreet.com, CSO, and Boston Magazine.

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