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Thursday, October 6, 2011

Thinking the unthinkable about Steve Jobs

Posted By on 10.06.11 at 02:41 PM

I was walking up Michigan Avenue last night when I saw a crowd of news cameras around the Apple Store. There was a bouquet of flowers on the floor next to the display window and I bent down to read the card attached. It was slightly obscured by the petals, but in cotillion handwriting someone had expressed thanks “for personally touching our lives.” An elderly woman asked me to read the card for her, and when I asked her whom it was for, she replied, “Haven’t you heard? Steve Jobs just died.” I looked inside the store and Apple employees were huddled in a circle consoling one another.

My freshman year in college, I had no obligations to anyone but myself, or at least that was my attitude, so I didn’t want for much. But the first time I saw an Apple Titanium Powerbook G4, I wanted it. Even with all the introductions and innovations of iPhones and iPads and iTunes and whatever, I still think that the first Powerbook G4 is the most beautiful item that Apple has ever created. It’s difficult to articulate just how radical a change it was, aesthetically and functionally, from every other laptop that preceded it. Most laptops were these bulky, heavy, plastic deadweights, dragging down backpacks and shoulder bags. But this was light and flexible and thin, and it had this shiny, clean, “Titanium” exterior. Likewise, computer screens had the same image processing as televisions, but they were mysteriously unable to reproduce the moving image in a cinematic manner. This computer reproduced television-like quality moving images, and when it played DVDs, the picture quality was better than most of the TVs that people had on campus.

The thing is, I don’t look back on my desire for this computer and think, “Wow, what a genius that Steve Jobs was.” I think, “Wow, how incredibly selfish, materialistic, and petty I was to care so much about a computer.” That undoubtedly says something about me. But I wonder how many people who took to Twitter and Facebook last night to praise Jobs and his genius have ever thought about why they care so much about Apple products, and what that says about us and how we think about the world and our place in it.

Today, people are thanking and praising Jobs for the innovations he made to technological hardware and software. Yet one thing people should also be pondering, and I have yet to see this anywhere, is that the ways in which Jobs simplified and eased how we process and receive information is inversely proportional to the amount of time we spend distracted by it. Sure, Apple products have made certain things easier, but they have also produced just as many unproductive endeavors, most of them involving the word “browsing.” Jobs is not responsible for many of the applications that provide our greatest distractions, but the aesthetic framework behind Apple products has undoubtedly informed the ways in which software and online applications are designed/operated: sterile cleanliness, symmetrical visual appeal, elementary ease.

A friend of mine Tweeted last night: "Today, thousands of strangers rallied against the evils of Wall Street, millions more expressed sincere grief over a billionaire CEO's death." This rhetorical plaint has merit, but for the wrong reasons. The underlying presumption to a reader, and probably to the writer, is one of class: how we choose to remember the innovations of the rich. In fact, what I find fascinating about Occupy Wall Street is how people have interfaced in the physical world to achieve a united purpose, rather than do it in a technological forum. And yet, one has to presume that technological advents like Facebook and, yes, iPhones played a large part in aggregating such a huge throng of people. Furthermore, without the Internet, would news of the protest have reached such a broad range of people so quickly?

These are complicated questions, and Jobs, from what I’ve read about him, seemed like a pretty complicated guy. That’s why many of the remembrances of him seem so undercooked, because they don’t account for how his innovations may have had an adverse effect on human experience. We can praise Jobs’ progressive technological inventions, but on some level we have to admit that they’re complex reflections of our own narcissism. I’d rather not choose to remember Steve Jobs through obsequious eulogies or sarcastic tweets. What Jobs seemed to have wanted, to connect people, has much more resonance in the woman who sadly told me that he had died. It was the most human interaction I’d had all day.

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