A few weeks ago, a coworker sent me a link to a YouTube video called “Yosemitebear Mountain Giant Double Rainbow.” The video, which has gone viral, has been watched over 31 million times. It shows a man who appears to be, shall we say, blissed out. He rhapsodizes at length about a double rainbow that soars above a beautiful mountain landscape. His shouts of joy become increasingly awestruck—and increasingly ridiculous. He breaks into sobs, crying out, “Oh wow! Oh wow! It’s so beautiful! Oh my God! Oh my God! What does it mean? What does it mean?”
There are times when we encounter beauty that brings us to tears and causes us to wax poetic (to the amusement or discomfort of others). On rare occasions, these encounters may even change our lives. But our double-rainbow experiences usually don’t appear in the sky. They are more coincidental juxtapositions of events that cause us to sit back and wonder, “What does it mean? What does it mean?”
To my mind, the recent “Occupy Wall Street” (OWS) movement and the death of Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs are one of those “double-rainbow” moments in our culture, nearly simultaneous events that seem to comment on one another and lead people to search for an elusive underlying meaning. Commentators have spilt barrels of ink and screen pixels in efforts to find a special significance in these events.
Since the first OWS protests on September 17, there has been no shortage of observers trying to explain the phenomenon as it spread to over seventy cities within the course of a few weeks. The political left celebrated the groundswell of activism for which it has long yearned. Conservatives decried it as a disruptive nuisance sponsored by anarchists and socialists who threaten to return America to the violent chaos of the 1960s and early 1970s. Not a few liberals dismissed it as too incoherent, disorganized, and aimless to have any lasting effect. Yet everyone recognized that something of significance was happening.
One reason OWS is hard to assess is that it is not dominated by and does not reflect the demands of a particular political, age, economic, or racial group. Compared to the Tea Party protests in Washington, DC and elsewhere, OWS assemblies are strikingly diverse in race, class, gender, and age. Indeed, some see such diffuseness as a distinct advantage. The sight of blue-collar construction workers, retirees, and trust-fund babies protesting alongside recent college grads who feel shut out of the job market reminds us that the inequities of our society resonate across a range of demographics.
At one OWS gathering, author and activist Cornel West declared, “We’re talking about a democratic awakening.” Indeed, that may be the movement’s major impact to date: the sense that millions of people from all walks of life are having their “Oh wow!” moment, discovering something unexpected and beautiful that affects them viscerally. The essential core of the movement appears to be deliberately trying to answer the “What does it mean?” question. Those living in the tents in parks across America have begun to focus on some core issues: job creation, more equitable income distribution, tax reform, and reining in corporate influence in politics and culture. Others raise the issues of debt, whether it’s the mortgage debt that has forced them from their homes or the crush of student loan debt carried by millions of college students and graduates.
Ironically, OWS is not especially anti-business. Rather than calling for the overthrow of business and the financial system, the protesters seem primarily concerned that businesses act responsibly and respond to the needs of workers and consumers. They insist that corporations and banks should serve the needs of the vast majority of citizens, the ones they call “the 99 percent.” Their slogan “We are the 99 percent” arguably misunderstands the problems of inequity and wage stagnation, but it captures the sense that most citizens feel overcome by unseen and powerful economic interests.
Some observers consider OWS a first-world equivalent to the recent freedom movements in the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring that has brought new governments to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya and sparked protests and reforms elsewhere. Whether or not those comparisons are apt, both OWS and the Arab Spring share a reliance on social networking tools such as e-mail, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which enable a dispersed population to use the information revolution to express its aspirations and politically organize itself.
Indeed, social media certainly is a mark of the OWS movement. Many of the protesters are “texting” and “tweeting,” using an iPhone, iPod Touch, iPad, or other Apple device to connect with likeminded folk. It seems oddly fitting that Steve Jobs, the brain behind many of these gadgets, would die just as a new era of protest movements becomes a global phenomenon. Jobs’s inventions are to political protests of the new millennium what television was to the antiwar protests of the Vietnam War era: a communications technology for summoning the world’s attention, registering protest, and demanding reform. They also mark the emergence of Apple as the world’s most valuable technology company and largest publicly traded corporation.
Big business begets the OWS movement. Oh wow! And Jobs’s death has another “double rainbow” effect: it signals the democratization of what were once regarded as boutique toys for older, well-off people. Apple iPods and iPhones certainly are generational markers for everyone in their twenties and thirties and even younger. But Jobs himself, a late baby boomer born in 1955 and a public figure for over thirty years, was fully one of his—and my—generation. In photographs from the late 1970s he looked like a college dropout, a long-haired, slightly cocky young man in a plaid shirt and jeans. This gave way to a shorter-haired variation, in bowtie and sport coat, a parody of preppiness. After returning from exile to Apple in the mid-1990s, he became the bearded Jobs who wore a black mock turtleneck and blue jeans (again) while previewing new Apple products to auditoriums of manic enthusiasts. In the past five years or so, as cancer took its toll, he grew increasingly gaunt. Only the flash of passion in his eyes remained to remind us of his self-confident younger self.
Jobs’s changing image seemed a deliberate attempt to keep pace with his increasingly dazzling and sleekly stylized inventions. That image also mirrors what many of us mid- to late baby boomers have wanted for ourselves, what we have imagined about ourselves: to be smart and cool, but not fully of the mainstream. Some have dubbed Jobs the “hippie capitalist.”
In the last six years, after his cancer diagnosis, Jobs went on the greatest creative tear of any businessperson in memory. He introduced the iPod (and all its variants), iTunes, the iPhone, and the iPad. Young people swooned with each product rollout; the media lionized their creator. But my generation watched nervously as we watched Jobs’s body grow more frail even as his new toys grew more ingenious and more beautiful. He reminded us, painfully, that our time, too, is passing.
With the passing of Steve Jobs my generation recognized not just the death of an American genius, but the collapse of some part of our own prideful self-understanding. We late boomers want to see ourselves in Jobs, not only in the images we recall of him but also in the anticipation of achievement, the sense of promise we’ve tried to fulfill for the past forty years. Jobs represented the capacity for innovation and imagination that our generation expected to emulate and embody. When the market crashed and the economy went into recession, it became apparent that our promise was missing, our expectations wildly overstated. If Steve Jobs’s death injects uncertainty into the worlds of business and technology, it produces a sense of foreboding in our generation, the sense of an unanticipated ending, that there is no double rainbow announcing hope. We are not yet ready to cede to others the promise we squandered.
Following Jobs’s death, the news media repeatedly played excerpts from his commencement address to Stanford University graduates some years ago. The excerpts suggested a legacy of wisdom for young achievers. With his cancer battle in mind, Jobs said, “The only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.”
Great words, those, but also problematic and terrifying. Of course we want to believe that what Jobs proclaimed we too can attain, this ideal life where we all “do what we love.” But in our gangbusters pursuit of “not settling,” how often have we ignored our neighbors, overlooked their needs, and stood in the way of their thriving? And hasn’t our passionate pursuit of our own self-invention helped produce some of the very inequities the OWS movement is moved to protest?
It seems to me that OWS wants to remind us that for every Steve Jobs empowered by the American economy there are millions of others whom the economy has left behind. Unlike many of the Stanford graduates, they are unable to find work they believe in or to love what they do. Jobs said, “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life.” But how many of us have the means to do that? OWS believes that 99 percent of us are living lives to which we’ve been consigned by corporate greed. Jobs offers corporate nirvana.
The Apple products that sprang from Jobs’s mind cause many of us to respond, “Oh wow! It’s so beautiful!” But as Apple becomes essential to our life we may be prompted to ask, “What does it mean?” These gadgets in many ways fulfill the visions we oohed and aahed over in childhood comic books, but they have not yet found a way to communicate or sustain hope. Instead, we wait anxiously for the next iteration, fearing that our new toys will quickly be outdated—just as we ourselves may be outdated too.
Steve Jobs’s sister, the writer Mona Simpson, wrote recently about her brother’s last moments: “He seemed to be climbing. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later. Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them. Steve’s final words were: OH WOW. OH WOW. OH WOW” (“A Sister’s Eulogy for Steve Jobs,” New York Times, 30 October 2011).
What did he see? I’m betting on a double rainbow.
David Lott is a religious book editor and a graduate of St. Olaf College and Luther Seminary. He lives in Washington, DC, where he does freelance editing and writing.