Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Steve Jobs

A few years ago I read the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson, after having it sit on a shelf for a long while. I'm not much of a biography person, and I'm certainly not into biographies on modern, pop-culture people. But at some point this book piqued my curiosity, and so I slogged through it. It is well-researched and well-written, a very good read; it held my attention throughout, even though I never had much particular interest in Steve Jobs before reading it.

The book touched on a lot of themes that I think about often, relating to technology, mass consumerism, personal behavior vs. professional impact.  Jobs's life ends up being a case study for me of a way of living life and shaping the world that I profoundly disagree with.

In the initial chapters, the young Jobs comes off as an irritating twit, focused on superficial, consumerized forms of intellect and spirituality.  He's into weird diets, weird New Age religions, everything is extreme, nothing moderated, and most extreme of all is his rejection of past ways of doing this or that in favor of constant (often futile) novelty.  He is not concerned with the social issues around him, evinces little interest in other parts of the world, and doesn't seem to care much about morality.  In short, Jobs in this biography seems to think he’s above it all, which is pretty much how a paramilitary warlord operates in Colombia.

I wasn't so stricken by his disagreeable personality though, but rather by this superficiality, this almost willful obliviousness to anything pertaining to real life and death issues. Jobs seems to ease off of many of his silly fads and caprices by mid-life, but he is still focused on finding transcendence through distracting gizmos and pretty plastic shapes.  I understand that not everyone has to be nor should be Malcolm X or some other valiant fighter against social injustice, but Jobs as presented in the biography comes off as exceptionally apathetic socially, at the same time that he elevates what are ultimately trivial issues of product design into an almost holy, noble pursuit.  The righteous indignation that is totally dormant when faced by the world's problems around him, becomes awakened and even despotic when faced by a question of rounded vs. squared edges or plexiglass vs. real glass screens.

Jobs constantly describes himself as being at the interface of art and technology, and I respect his impulses and achievements in this vein; Pixar movies have been a real contribution to our cultural canon, and the original visual Macintosh interface set the paradigm for computing thereafter, all the way up to the smart phones and tablets of today.  But at the same time, Jobs is neither much of an artist nor a tech guy as such.  He does not seem to have been an exceptional intellect either, and initially not a good businessman, driving Apple from almost 100% market share in personal computing in the early 80s to being a bit player in the 90s (though his business acumen seems to have sharpened fabulously in his second stint at Apple). 

No, Steve Jobs's gift seems to have been to synthesize ideas, to know what might play well in the consumer world, and to pitch things well.  This is no small accomplishment.  His genius was somewhere between design and showmanship.  I think a lot of people I know might have been able to do what he did, if they found themselves in his place and time.  But at any rate, Jobs was a man who knew how to live in his time and identify and push the things that would define the era.

I don’t like Jobs's dictatorial approach to electronics, and that’s why I’ve never liked using Apple computers ever since the first time I tried a non-Apple computer.  From early on, Apple produced "closed-box" products, meaning things that you couldn't modify as a user.  Jobs believed in the right of an elite to have special privileges and to dictate terms for everyone else, and he was against people's deciding for themselves how to do things.  This last point is illustrated well and made explicit by the author of the biography, who contrasts Jobs's self-image as a swashbuckler fighting against a stultified system, with the overdesigned, inflexible, non-modifiable products he created.  

I understand and even respect Jobs's vision of an integrated system between computer, software, and devices, and I appreciate his striving for friendly, intuitive interfaces.  In fact, Apple's business model is a bit like the artisanal, hand-crafted vision I often advocate for in the sectors of food, crafts, and industry in general.  But Apple's vision doesn’t leave room for tinkerers, free-thinkers, anyone who doesn’t think that Jobs’s cute, integrated, “intuitive” way of doing things is the way they want to do things.  The author captures this very well, and points out the tension between the reality of a mammoth, somewhat dictatorial company and the rebellious, free-thinking image Jobs wanted to project.   If you don’t like how Jobs wants you to do something, you won’t be happy using an Apple product.   And that’s why I don’t use them.  It is once again a case of researchers and the market trying to force their way on the rest of us

An insidious legacy of Apple's integrated-content model is the proliferation of apps and closed networks on the internet, a la Facebook.  I have written on a number of occasions about the danger of closing ourselves off from the fully-open Internet.  I don’t want tobuy apps to filter the world for me and entertain me. I want to roam the Internet freely and investigate the things that interest me, without anyone pre-selecting content for me. 

My final take after reading Jobs's biography, and then reflecting a great deal on the implications of his vision of technology and Apple's role in the world, is that I'm glad that Apple exists, and I'm also glad that it holds only a minority share in most markets (especially over time).  Apple can design new, innovative ways of doing things, and the image they promote keeps some people using their products despite many shortcomings.  In turn, these good innovations get swept up (pirated, if you will) by other companies to incorporate in their designs, and consumers can decide if they like these features or not, thus removing them from Apple’s dictatorial, all-or-nothing design.  So I like that Apple keeps innovating, though I don’t want to use their products.  I prefer a freer model where their innovations get stolen and passed to the rest of us in a more flexible form!

I will close with a short reflection on the role of technology in art and meaningful human experience.

Here’s a quote from a New Yorker article on Amazon that I discussed in a blog some time ago:
Book publishing always has a rhetoric of the fallen age,” a senior editor at a major house told me. “It was always better before you got here. The tech guys—it’s always better if you just get out of my way and give me what I want. It’s always future-perfect.” He went on, “Their whole thing is ‘Let’s take somebody’s face and innovate on it. There’s an old lady—we don’t know we’re innovating unless she’s screaming.’ A lot of it is thoughtless innovation.”
I think “future-perfect”’ is a very apt term to describe how Jobs and many others in Silicon Valley see the world.  They have a [borderline sociopathic] urge to tear down the existing, established world, and a similarly fanatical, blind faith that the future will be better, that innovation of any type is better than stasis.  If objective quality or measures of human wellbeing are negatively impacted by innovation, then either those measures must be wrong, or they weren't worth paying attention to anyway.

This is the irony of the tech-worshippers, who look ever forward.  They are almost willfully blind to the fact that the things that define humans, that bring us true joy, are timeless and haven’t changed much over human existence.  Family, work well done, sex, good food--if a technology can tangibly affect and improve our enjoyment of these things, then it is a real accomplishment.  Examples are the communication technology and transport that bring us closer to family, refrigerators to preserve our food and bring us food from afar, condoms to make sex safer, wash machines to free up time to spend with family.  Health technology has brought perhaps the most clear improvement of our basic wellbeing and the things that matter.

However, many of the major breakthroughs in life-improving technology came 50-100 years ago, and subsequent technology is often a lot of white noise with just a few gems (the Internet among them).  New movie special effects, new iPhone apps, new car optional features, do not in my eyes markedly improve the human condition or bring us more contact with the true meaningful things.  In this degree such innovation is so much wasted endeavor.

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