Tuesday, October 18, 2011

'Reality Is Broken': on the death of Steve Jobs

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system.

(Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, ‘The Gadget Lover’)

And then it hits you: you’re having a conversation with your phone.

(Lex, The Apple Podcast, 7 October 2011)

The single most predictable thing that happened in the hours following Steve Jobs’ death was that Twitter crashed. Three years ago, it was enough for him to speak to halt the service, but in 2011 a product launch is no longer a guarantee. Like most of us, Jobs was at his most newsworthy in death, and that’s what it took. I think it’s worth reflecting on this circumstance, because – as the service improves and the global communication platforms become more robust – it may well be the last time that any single person’s death causes a systemic breakdown.

Twitter was around when Michael Jackson died, but not when Lady Diana died, and then briefly this last October 5th it was uninvented again and it was minutes before people could resume expressing their feelings or echoing the words used by others, as they had been doing to the tune of 10,000 tweets per second at peak time before the disruption. During that time the internet had become a mourners’ book, like the ones available at funerals, and briefly the book was closed, as if to say, there are just too many words.

We might yet look back with a twinge of nostalgia to the time when our technologies could still exclaim ‘Enough of this!’, but in the meantime the story is the book itself, that extraordinary extension of people’s capacity to share in grief, to memorialise in one of two lines of text, or in pictures – and not the prepared-in-advance or hastily composed long-form pieces that actually engaged with Jobs’ life and work. Somewhere between the petulant sycophancy of Stephen Fry and the inflammatory obituary penned by Richard Stallman one might find many useful evaluations of the contribution and legacy of this great industrialist, but far more poignant and meaningful was the tide of emotional response, the outpouring of affection that was already wholly contained in those hashtags: thank you Steve, iSad, RIP Steve Jobs.

The tweet that I found most arresting was also the one that best highlighted how the underlying communication infrastructure that enabled this outpouring – and that is often represented and perceived as a virtual construct – consists in fact of a whole lot of hardware, and how its reach is the reach of global capital itself.

This is not just an extraordinarily succinct formulation of commodity fetishism, but also a quasi-political statement: by touching the concrete object of global consumer desire, a group of geographically dispersed individuals declares itself a nation. (Which may just help explain why the peculiar pride of ownership of Apple products often matches the rhetoric of patriotism.) However just as striking, just as sharp have been the statements in pictures that counterbalance this material connection with an immaterial, spiritual one. The best-known of these is the brilliant design created by Hong Kong student Jonathan Mak two months ago, when Jobs stood down as CEO of Apple, but I’m rather more fond of the one below – a portrait of Steve Jobs made with the tweets carrying the #thankyousteve hashtag, in descending order of popularity.

If you think that this image captures a very contemporary, of-this-moment zeitgeist, I invite you to consider the following portrait of Lenin, made in 1922 using the first six paragraphs of the Constitution for the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic that he had written in 1918.

What is being rendered in both of these examples spanning nearly a century is the quintessentially iconic: an image made of words, therefore so much more than a semblance. A face that carries its own meanings, that produces meaning. At this level of representation, it makes little sense to debate the actual merits and life’s work of Steve Jobs (or, indeed, Lenin): the figure stands for something much larger. It stands for a set of ideas.

In the case of Jobs, the set of ideas in question is the digital revolution in its last four or five iterations, from the first personal computer to the smart phone and the tablet, and including the internet in spite of the fact that neither he nor his company had a direct hand in inventing it. (Indeed in all of these areas Jobs’ actual contribution is likely to be somewhat overstated, but it doesn’t matter because he has become a shared and universally accepted symbol, much more so than the arguably just-as-influential Jonathan Ive, or, perhaps more to the point, the also recently deceased Dennis Ritchie.) However, while the scope of the association is very broad, its nature is more specific, and refers particularly to the marriage of form and function and the relationship between commerce, technology and the liberal arts. Or, more specifically still, to the marketability of these ideas, in the form of the emotional response that they produce.

The well-adjusted, ca. 1977

Think of the genius of the ‘Think Different’ slogan (subtext: ‘by all purchasing identical and largely uncustomizable products’), or the barely literate but equally as effective ‘Insanely great’ qualifier, shorthand for the perfectly-pitched hype that surrounds every new Apple release. Consider also the peculiar habit of users who also happen to be artists to share the authorship of their work with their Apple-branded machines.

The simple explanation for this phenomenon is that creative people are more likely to appreciate the value of a well-designed working environment, but the emotional investment/attachment often seems of a rather incommensurate order. In this respect I was struck by something that William Gibson wrote immediately after the news broke.

I love the historical detail in this tweet, which got me thinking about how Gibson himself wrote Neuromancer in 1983, famously on a typewriter, but of course with the benefit of hindsight we can say quite definitively that the Apple II didn’t automate writing at all, and neither has any subsequent personal computer or portable device (unless you include autocorrect, which by all accounts has a singular capacity to automate the making of mistakes). This is not by the by: if the well-designed machine really makes us more creative, then can we say that the world produces better music or better novels now than it did before Steve Jobs went and changed everything? And if we can’t say that, then is the virtue of the well-designed machine merely to improve the experience of creating, fulfilling the role that used to belong to the Moleskine-type notebook, or the Remington typewriter, or the excellent quill – or any other tool that creative types could affect a superior appreciation for?

No, that’s not quite it. I think that one is still at a loss to explain gadget love – or the love of the well-designed machine – solely on rational grounds or by invoking the word 'fetishism', and without resorting to any of the terms used by McLuhan. For all his contempt for Apple’s critics, Stephen Fry is unwittingly illuminating on this point.
I don’t want to be characterised as an incurable unthinking Apple “fanboi” – but I cannot fight the instinct that makes my hand always reach for the pocket with the iPhone in it when I have a Windows 7, a Blackberry and an Android just as available in other pockets. I have in the past set myself the task of using only an Android for two weeks, or only a Windows 7 phone or only a Blackberry and while it can be done (obviously) I am less content, more frustrated and crucially as far as I am concerned, less productive as a result.
Ours is the culture in which a person making an ostensibly rational case for the merits of one particular brand of machines over the others will think nothing of letting it slip that he carries four smartphones on his person, or that he routinely tries to go without one or more of them for sets periods of time – because it won’t seem strange. And it won’t seem strange because in our culture there is no such thing as using too much technology, and no sense that the judgment of a person who carries four smartphones might be in any way affected by this behaviour. In fact, we hold that nobody is better equipped to judge on the merits of a technology, of technology itself, than the enthusiastic early-adopting gadget-lover who will readily boast of carrying four smartphones on his person.

In this culture of ours Apple’s products – through no great fault of Jobs’ other than being exceptionally good at what he did – are the prime example of tools whose culture-enhancing value is implicit and does not warrant critical examination. We were reminded of this in New Zealand recently when a polemic erupted after a high-decile school made iPads compulsory for its students: many complained about the costs involved; none inquired about the rationale of introducing iPads in schools in the first place. The president of the Principals Association stated in fact matter-of-factly that eventually every student in the country will have to use one, at which point the state would have to bear some of the cost for elementary reasons of equity.

And if all schoolchildren are to be equipped with tablet computers, what about preschoolers? Shifting the definition of early-adopter are the digitally-born. Unlike the millions who ‘thanked Steve’ in the last two weeks, their lives won’t be changed: they will come into a world already changed. Kevin Kelly writes:
Another friend had a barely-speaking toddler take over his iPad. She could paint and handle complicated tasks on apps with ease and grace almost before she could walk. It is now sort of her iPad. One day he printed out a high resolution image on photo paper and left it on the coffee table. He noticed his toddler come up to up and try to unpinch the photo to make it larger, like you do on an iPad. She tried it a few times, without success, and looked over to him and said "broken."
It doesn’t matter that I don’t believe for a moment that this story is true. What matters is that we live in a culture in which somebody came up with it and somebody else repeated it in order to invite us to draw the moral that to deny the young gadget-lover access to his machines means to shatter his reality.

The baby in the picture is clearly looking into a pond (an iPond?), but in the infant version of the Narcissus myth there would be no wooing nymph, and no danger of mistaking that reflection on the translucent surface for anything other than an Other.

It comes down again to that emotional response. Look more closely at the portrait of Steve Jobs I offered earlier, and you’ll see that it is made of tens of thousands of declarations of affection, remembrances left by people who were touched by technology (‘I never loved a computer, until you’) and whom technology enabled to express these feelings socially. The temptation – as in the case of other famous deaths – is to declare all or most of this affection misplaced, to point to the fact that others should be thanked besides Steve Jobs, possibly instead of him. And that’s fine. But know this: that that love, narcissistic as it most certainly is, is also a key index of our times.