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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On Steve Jobs

There's something funny about how being absent from my blog for an extended period makes it harder and harder to return, as if there were some sort of pressure mounting for a comeback post.  There are a bunch of things I've been wanting to write about, particularly after having received much unanticipated blog-support from friends and family back home, but I've been, as always, pressed for time due to classes and events and traveling and all.  But where to start?  Something light, meant to help everyone forget the fact that I've been slacking on my blogligations?  Something heavy, to show that I take the blog itself seriously and am not concerned by a month gap here and there?  Or a long preface, which I am finding more and more difficult to continue justifying?  

On with it!  Today's topic: Steve Jobs.  I realize it's ridiculous for me to sit around and point out what's wrong with a guy as talented, creative, and successful as Jobs was, and I'm wary of furthering my own image as "the guy who is never happy and is determined to ruin everything for everyone else" (henceforth, to be abbreviated to "curmudgeon.").  But I really wish the whole world (by which I mean, everyone on Facebook and everyone writing articles about Jobs) would step back from its Jobs-reverence and think about the meaning of this reverence itself.  What does it say about us, our culture, and our values, that more mourned the death of Jobs than of Wangari Matthai? [Disclaimer: I hardly know anything about this woman and even had to look up her name.  I am far from unaffected by all the developments I'm about to gripe about.]

Most of the praise for Jobs concentrates on his entrepreneurial qualities.  He was a college dropout, got replaced for being a little too wild, then came back to replace his replacement and create one of the most successful companies of modern times - indeed, a company so strong that it has, so far, weathered America's recession/depression better than just about any other.  He blended aesthetics and pragmatics, creating computers and devices with more options, functions, and power than had been thought possible.   He mastered marketing to such an extent that many people know they want they next iPhone without even knowing what it will be capable of.  [Personal aside:] I don't know what it's like in America, but I have one (Korean) friend here who's been waiting for the iPod 5 for months or a year or whatever, and is now worried that its release might be delayed.  I suggest she just buy a 4, to which she replied, "then all of my waiting will have been in vain."  It's impossible to doubt the genius of someone who inculcated this sort of brand loyalty in so many. 

And yet, in many ways, he was a follower, and is a sign of our own readiness to follow.  He played into and capitalized on the absolute worst, most destructive aspects of our culture: our need for constant entertainment, and constant upgrades; our addiction to size, speed, and sleek; our superficiality, and our willingness to turn a blind eye. 

Jobs mounted an attack on immediacy, and continuously virtualized more and more of our world: no matter where we are, who we're with, we can choose to be somewhere else.  Given the number of alternative sights and sounds available to us at any given moment, what are the odds that our real, physical surroundings are the most interesting?  My students, sitting five feet away from me in class, fiddle with their smartphones under their desks, talking to friends in the next building about what they did this morning or what they'll do tonight.  People don't move to let me out of the subway, because, ears full of music, they can't hear me say "excuse me."  Pedestrians cause accidents on the sidewalk because they can't hear cyclists' bells; cyclists cause accidents on the road because they can't hear drivers' horns; and drivers cause accidents because they're watching sports and soap operas rather than the road.  I quit going to the Daegu Language Exchange because one guy kept pulling out his iPad every four seconds GoogleMap some place someone had mentioned to find some pictures of it on Facebook.  He had forgotten that the point of the language exchange was...well...to talk to one another. 

Of course, most of the above can be classified as annoyances, all of which existed in some guise before Jobs and before Apple, even if some of them do cost people limbs and lives.  But there are more serious consequences, too.  As "The Dark Side of Steve Job's Dream" points out, Jobs may have been the brains behind every iPad, iMac, iPhone, and iPod, but he certainly wasn't the brawn that stood on the factory line for ten hours a day putting them together for a pittance.  Nor will he be the one to dig through the next shipment of year-old, already outdated electronic junk that hits the 3rd world's shores in search of a few ounces of reclaimable metal.  He will, of course, be one of the ones that has to deal with more plastic particles in his water and more poisons in his air, but then again, so will everyone else.   Only he became a billionaire, rich enough to isolate himself from most of the damage he was complicit in.  Where are the tweets of distress for all of those can't escape the consequences quite so easily?  And for those who won't be able to?

Of course, Jobs is not alone in all of this.  Dell, Toshiba, Sony, Creative...any company dealing in electronics is equally implicated and equally guilty*.  This is precisely why I called Jobs a follower.  He was a leader, sure, but at the front of a pack that's long been driving us right off of a cliff.  As the author of the article "Steve Jobs Was Not God" points out, we should save our praise for those who make a real contribution to the present welfare of the unfortunate or to the long-term welfare of mankind, not to those who make life just a little bit easier or snazzier for those who already have it pretty good.  Jobs did a great deal to destroy the environment, and perhaps a greater deal destroy our ability to care. 

In order to solve ethical, political, and environmental dilemmas, what we need is a sense of connection to the people and the places that are affected by our decisions.  I can't help but feel that iGadgets, for the most part, both symbolize our near-complete failure on this front, and help push our chances of success even further away.


*Ever seen The Story of Stuff?


wla said...

Amen. Really well put.

JH said...

This is a great post. Please blog more.

Louis said...


I think we share brainspace but you're the more well spoken part. Props.

Kristin said...

Thank you for putting into words everything that's been milling about in my head the past few days. Keep blogging!

Andy said...

"Jobs did a great deal to destroy the environment, and perhaps a greater deal to destroy our ability to care."

Amazing quote.

I agree that the creations of Jobs and Apple have many unintended consequences, but I really can't decide if it is justified or not. These devices have been used to create many good and beautiful things, and it is hard to label their creator as a bad guy. I tend to believe the worst thing he did is essentially brainwash millions of people to do/believe whatever he wanted them to.

Mike said...

Thanks everyone for the support! Even after all these years, I still suffer from a "who am I to be blogging about anything?" complex. It's good to know people are reading. And even better if they're friends and family, far or near!

I won't dispute that Jobs' inventions, as Andy said, "have been used to create many good and beautiful things." I can't count the times that I've had to reluctantly admit that my friend's iWhatever is pretty useful. But it's worth asking - who are they good for? who are they beautiful to? Only to the people who are rich enough to buy them - just about all of whom, in my opinion, already have more than their fair share of good and beautiful things in their lives. What we perceive as good and beautiful may well look like sweatshops and smog and giant dumps and children with cancer elsewhere to others. We reap all the beauty, others suffer all the "unintended consequences," i.e. externalized costs, i.e. things producers ought to have to compensate people and communities for.

Again, this is not an indictment of Jobs himself so much as the electronics industry, or even our entire economy, which is obsessed with marginal and inessential upgrades to our pleasure - not even our well-being, but our pleasure! - with very little regard for the consequences to other beings and systems. What will it take to get people to acknowledge this?

I'm making myself want to read Peter Singer's "The Life You Could Save."