In 1933, Thupten Gyatso, the 13th Dalai Lama, died at the age of 57. According to Tibetan Buddhist doctrine, the spirit of a departed Dalai Lama chooses the next body into which he will be reincarnated. So when a group of elders noticed that Gyatso’s head had pivoted from facing south to facing northeast during the embalming process, they took it as an omen. A search party left Lhasa for the northeastern province of Amdo, where they found a 2-year-old boy named Lhamo Thondup. After he successfully identified Gyatso’s possessions, the search party proclaimed him the 14th Dalai Lama, more than four years after Gyatso’s death.
Our quest to find the next Steve Jobs has not been nearly so inspired.
Jobs’ passing in 2011, like the life that preceded it, was infused with spiritual fervor. When he died at 56, mourners around the world built makeshift shrines outside Apple stores—an outpouring more suited to a pope than to a captain of industry. They were a fitting tribute to a man who always conceived of his mission in quasireligious terms. In Jobs’ view, he wasn’t just building a business, but putting “a dent in the universe.” As a student of Zen Buddhism, he presented the first Apple motherboard as proof of his own enlightenment. “He knew the equations that most people didn’t know,” his daughter Lisa told Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson. “Things led to their opposites.”
In the time since his death, the tech industry and press has hunted for his next incarnation. At different points, journalists declared Jack Dorsey, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Marissa Mayer, Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin, Chinese entrepreneur Joe Chen, and personal-finance-app creator Angel Rich to be the Next Steve Jobs. Tim Cook, Jobs’ successor as Apple CEO, cast a shadow on the entire exercise, calling Jobs “irreplaceable” in a 2012 interview. It was a necessary act of expectation-setting from the new corporate leader, but it was also true. Jobs’ successors may mimic his skills as an entrepreneur or designer or marketer. But how many of them could credibly claim that their career was driven by an LSD-inspired urge to put “things back into the stream of human history and human consciousness as much as I could?” How many carry themselves with the natural authority of someone attuned to the mysteries of the universe? How many are likely to pass from this earth with an utterance as humble and profound as Jobs’ “Oh wow”?
If you roll your eyes at such mumbo jumbo it may be because, in the years since his death, Jobs’ lofty legacy has come back down to earth. His toxic personality was well-established before his death, but the details that emerged have come to define his life as much as his creations. That’s probably partly why Elon Musk, another perennial entrant in the Next Steve Jobs power rankings, rejects the title, telling Rolling Stone, “If I was dying and I had a turtleneck on, with my last dying breath, I would take the turtleneck off and try to throw it as far away from my body as possible.”
Conversely, the technologists most eager to claim Jobs’ mantle are the least inspiring. Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes dressed in Jobsian black turtlenecks and cloaked her company’s efforts in Jobsian secrecy, until her efforts to re-create a Jobsian “reality distortion field” were exposed to be simple fraud. When ousted Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick claimed he was “Steve Jobs-ing it,” he wasn’t referring to a Joseph Campbell–style episode of exile that results in humility and self-knowledge, but merely biding his time before he could force his way back into the company. Jobs may have had access to equations few people knew, but these purported acolytes follow a much more familiar formula, one that starts with unchecked ego and will to power and ends in disgrace.
The larger tech industry suffers some of the same affliction. What was once seen as an almost mystical endeavor to advance the species has threatened to devolve into a series of naked power grabs. The sense of magic that technologists once evoked has been suffused with suspicion and fear, as their creations gobble up a greater share of our economy, attention, and lives. Some of this backlash follows the predictable path of the hype cycle. But some of it comes from a vacuum left when Jobs died, the feeling that someone with special knowledge was giving us something we didn’t know we needed, granting us powers we didn’t know we had. That kind of person doesn’t come along on a schedule; we can’t declare a new one just because the previous one died.
It’s been more than four years since Jobs died, but we’re still here, searching for a leader to show us the way forward.
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This article was syndicated from wired.com