by Scott Berinato, editor @ HBR, (source), accessed 5th Oct ’12
A visionary who influenced the lives of countless millions across the world has died after a battle with pancreatic cancer.
He is Dr. Ralph Steinman, a biologist who on Monday, three days after his death, won the Nobel prize in medicine. Steinman discovered what he called dendritic cells, which unlocked the puzzle of how the body reacts to infection. It changed how we treat cancer, infectious diseases and immune system disorders.
Steve Jobs also passed away, most likely also from pancreatic cancer, on Wednesday. I admit to finding the instant canonization of Jobs discomfiting. The effusive Facebook tributes, the clogged Twitter stream, the sudden attribution of every positive interaction with technology to this one man, seemed out of proportion, even erroneous.
But I couldn’t quite explain myself to colleagues and friends. It appeared to them that I was some sort of hateful, grave-stomping misanthrope. He changed all of our lives, they yelled at me. Think of all the things you do with his products, they pleaded. His beautiful products!
I agreed that he steered one of the great American business comeback stories. He was aremarkably effective CEO for the past decade. He oversaw more hits than misses. Whether it was his own aesthetic or one he trusted to the industrial designers he hired — who, more than anyone else, define the brand — Apple has created a singular vision. It can’t be an accident that consumer technology’s overthrow of information technology as the primary driver of innovation and progress, along with the rise of social media, has occurred in lockstep with the rise of Apple.
But something about the outpouring — the flowers at retail outlets, the digital candle iPad app — still gnawed at me. Was it the fact he bullied his way to dominance? Was it his complicated, some would say underwhelming record on philanthropy (especially compared to competitive titan Bill Gates)? Was it the glib reaction to low-wage workers hurling themselves off buildings at the factories that make his products? That all bothered me, but that wasn’t quite it either.
Then I read Dr. Steinman’s obituary. I was moved not only by how profoundly his discoveries have changed medicine, but by the astonishing fact that, to stave off his own cancer, he was using treatments developed from his own Nobel-winning discovery. I tunneled down one of those rabbit holes of links from the obituary, to pages on the dendritic cell, to all the treatments his discovery has enabled. I learned quite a bit and felt better for knowing at least this little bit about this important man.
It hit me then that the root of my unease was not with whether or not Steve Jobs deserved canonization, but rather that Steve Jobs is the person we now nominate for canonization. A celebrity mogul. A distant billionaire who built beautiful first-world comforts. This is who we consider our beacon, our leader, the person who is worthy of understanding and following (literally, on Twitter) and remembering. This is who energizes us to change profile pictures and post our personal thanks for his existence.
And somehow, Dr. Steinman is not someone we’d choose. Maybe this says more about the perfunctory nature of social media and its ability to create an echo chamber of thoughtless attempts to be part of the conversation. What does it cost me, really, to click like, or swap out a picture, or link to a YouTube video, or profess to the world that a phone has fundamentally changed my existence?
Certainly that’s part of what’s driving this, but then again, Jobs’ death has commanded above-the-fold page 1 space for two consecutive days in the old media Times’ print edition and has dominated network news coverage. (The story of Steinman’s posthumous Nobel selection ran on page 1; his obituary on page A20). This is not just the social media effect. These are our values. They’re my values. In fact, I stumbled on Steinman’s obituary while doing a search related to Jobs, on pancreatic cancer. That was the source of the queasiness.
From what little I know, I’d suggest that Steinman was every bit the visionary that Steve Jobs was. His work profoundly affects anyone who has experienced disease, which is everyone. Entirely new strains of innovation emerged from his work. Once, I believe, a scientist like Steinman would have commanded the public’s undying adulation, much the way Jonas Salk did. I started to ask myself if Salk had died in the social media era, what would have been the reaction on Facebook and Twitter. In Steinman, I had a proxy: There’s a Facebook page for him: “Ralph Steinman Nobel Prize.” 174 people like this.
image source: steveyoungmac, accessed 5th Oct ’12