I'm writing this the day after Steve Jobs died, and the man's famous “reality distortion field” has surely survived him. It will be months or years before anybody can get a good-enough handle on what the guy did, and meant. Meanwhile his death looms, larger than life. As it should, because death and life both matter, and both need each other.
Life, far as we can tell, exists only on the surface of one planet of one star among a hundred billion in our galaxy, which is one of a hundred billion other galaxies. The chance of life happening elsewhere exceeds zero, but not the chance of finding out for sure in our lifetimes. Our deathtimes are another matter. We are all dead for most of eternity.
But if life exists elsewhere, it depends on death no less than does our own. That's because death is more than the end or the absence of life. It is a condition required by life. The living eat the dead. The living also heat, forge, manufacture, build and destroy with the dead. Except for wind, water, sun and radioactive elements, we produce all our electricity with products and by-products of death. Oil, coal, wood and gas come straight from death. So do asphalt, concrete, plastics and all natural and artificial fabrics. Without death, we would not have handy forms of geology known only on Earth: limestone, marble, travertine, chert, diatomite. None of the world's most beautiful caves would have formed, and there would be no stalactites or stalagmites. Without death, no great pyramids, no Notre Dame, no Pantheon, no Parthenon.
Death uses us to make more of itself. It wants us out of the way. Sooner or later, we are obliged to cease living, and to burn or flush our remains into death's system. Steve Jobs knew that, years before he departed. Here's what he said in a commencement address to graduating students at Stanford in 2005:
No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
As I write this, much is being said about how the tech world will miss Steve's creative muse, his leadership, his taste and the rest of it. Which it will. But “what would Steve do” is exactly kind of dogma trap the man warned us about. So is being like Steve, or like anybody other than ourselves.
Like lots of other people, I appreciated a lot of what Steve Jobs created, even as his control freakiness also drove me nuts. But he did what only he could do, and now he's gone. His shadow remains long. Yet we have to step out of it.
Most of us in the Linux community have long made a point of working as far as possible outside of Steve Jobs' shadow, as well as those of Bill Gates and other industrial giants of the computing and networking worlds. What I'm wondering, now that Steve's dead and Bill has left the building, is what more we can do with Linux, free software and open source, than we would if they were still around.
There are huge opportunities, especially with mobile devices. It's been fun to see Samsung rolling out kernel code (www.androidpolice.com/2011/09/21/att-samsung-galaxy-s-ii-kernel-source-code-released) for its Android devices, even as Google closes doors on Android 3.0 “Honeycomb” (www.zdnet.com/blog/google/google-android-30-honeycomb-open-source-no-more/2845). I even take heart in the weirdness of Nokia once again moving toward Linux, this time for its low-end phones, though something called Meltremi (thenextweb.com/mobile/2011/09/29/nokias-meltemi-project-tipped-to-bring-new-low-end-linux-os-to-the-next-billion). (What was wrong with Maemo?)
But a strength of Linux has always been its non-corporate nature. Android might belong to Google, but Linux doesn't belong anybody. Linux's sole purpose is to be useful. What makes us keep improving it is a deeply felt need to maximize that usefulness. That usefulness outlives us, but not because it's dead.
See, free and open code is a kind of living building material. It's like wood that's still quick. And nothing needs to die for it to keep improving. It's a product of life that lives to support more life. All it needs is to be used, patched and re-used. As creators, the roles are reversed: code's gods are mortal, but code doesn't have to be.