In one article we are told that Steve Jobs “saved technology from itself”. Imagine, it asks, a world where Jobs had not existed.
Computers are still around, but not as you know them. They’re complex, hateful things, mostly used in the office for spreadsheets and other business applications. Nobody bothered to sell a good-looking user interface with a desktop and mouse, because nobody could be sure there was a mass market for it.
This is all the more impressive a legacy since he never programmed a spreadsheet, he never designed an interface and he never engineered a mouse. It would be unfair to call him a marketeer but I think it best to call him a business man. He is more like Bill Gates than you would like to admit, without the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The death of Jobs obviously impacted people. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were full of heartfelt condolences. My friend Scot Evans (who is like a Bishop of youth work for the Church of Ireland), wrote this on his blog:
Jobs began a movement that made us fall in love with computers, bringing them and the internet into our homes and churches, connecting us with the wider world. Computers stopped being about tasks and work but about recreation, family and sharing. On his (and others) technologies, we began to build websites, write blogs, share our thoughts, our photos, videos and experiences.
At Pixar, he transformed the way in which we tell stories, revolutionising animated communication that has broadened our horizons and imaginations.
The excellent blogger Jason Kottke, who is usually a hard sceptic about all things metaphysical, actually pondered what it meant that that a rainbow appeared over the Pixar offices soon after the announcement of his death.
Even the turbo-conservative American Baptist preacher Al Mohler got in on the tributes to Jobs. In that case, this computer scientist grad in Ireland is surely entitled to spout a few kilobytes worth of guff on the topic.
In the best written piece I have read, Stephen Fry tells us that it is nothing but “asininity” to see Jobs as a salesman. Interestingly, that wonderfully written obituary by Stephen Fry cites Apple’s profits as evidence of Jobs’ genius. He cites my great philosophical hero, Oscar Wilde, to argue that there ought not be a dichotomy between style and substance. Hence:
Only dullards crippled into cretinism by a fear of being thought pretentious could be so dumb as to believe that there is a distinction between design and use, between form and function, between style and substance. If the unprecedented and phenomenal success of Steve Jobs at Apple proves anything it is that those commentators and tech-bloggers and “experts” who sneered at him for producing sleek, shiny, well-designed products or who denigrated the man because he was not an inventor or originator of technology himself missed the point in such a fantastically stupid way that any employer would surely question the purpose of having such people on their payroll, writing for their magazines or indeed making any decisions on which lives, destinies or fortunes depended.
But the problem for Fry is that when style is combined with substance we unite aesthetics and ethics to make something that we can actually call good. Since Jobs was not a key figure on the tech-side of Apple’s admittedly lovely products, we must also include the business-end in the assessment of what his work means.
Apple sold their lovely products in a most unlovely way. Their ads are all style, with no substance, commodifying creativity. Their production techniques are astonishingly mercenary. That Foxconn is abominable is not news. That by the end of Jobs’ life, only 30 people were employed in the USA in the production of millions of iPods is a fascinating, ambivalent and complex fact worth pondering.
Jobs didn’t save technology. Apple didn’t save technology. Technology doesn’t need saving. Technology is the greatest power and principality in our civilisation. The narrative of democratising the computer and hence creativity, currently being spun around Jobs, is just one more very fine piece of marketing (not just for Apple but for tech in general). Pixar hasn’t transformed the way we tell stories. It has however pushed the envelope on commercialisation of narrative through tie-in toy and fast food promotion.
Computers are tools. Like any other tool, there is a technique required to manipulate them. The extent of your ambition when it comes to a craft determines the complexity of the tool and technique. That Apple made products your gran can use just goes to show that computers are used for lots of trivial tasks like publishing blogs, uploading photos to Flickr and writing mean comments on YouTube. HP and HTC and some no-name company going out of business in a garage near you produce smartphones and tablets and laptops as well. They can be used by grannies and hipsters with lovely glasses as well. That they aren’t (to the same degree) goes to show you that the technology most important in the technological realm is marketing. And this is what Jobs excelled at.
Steve Jobs was a gifted man and he is a loss to our culture and a deeper loss to the American economy. He was an interesting man who produced many lovely things. He took a flipping courageous (and more impressively, a successful) stand against porn on his platforms, going so far as to say that the iPad offered “freedom from porn”. The Onion, in its satire, is perhaps the best tribute that can be paid to him.
But his death reveals that the theological meaning of technology lies in the narrative of technology in our life today. I type this on a grey plastic box filled with processed sand. Invisible to me, abstracted mathematical concepts are played out in gates made of silicone and copper, turning my thoughts into numbers and then into letters that can be accessed from anywhere these little plastic boxes are common. That this can happen is a marvel. But it doesn’t amount to much.
Technology is lovely, perhaps especially when packaged by Apple. But a MacBook won’t save your life or make it. Selling gadgets, toys and tablets can generate a lot of wealth. But they neither constitute culture nor especially generate it. Apple’s narrative of putting power in your hands to be an individual is compelling. That you then use the gadget to connect to the cloud and anonymously download old Different Strokes episodes from the torrents is instructive. Your computer is a tool. Your mp3 player is a toy. Your tablet is a gadget. They stop you as much as they start you. The limit you as much as they liberate you. Without tech-free virtue, you’ll merely be different like the rest of us.
Let me end by being just like everyone else in hoping Mr. Jobs rests in peace.
Your Correspondent, What we have become, no-one should be